Former NHTSA Chief Gives General Motors A Lesson

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A former head in the federal agency that regulates vehicle safety admonished General Motors on Thursday for delaying a recall of over 1.3 million vehicles that had a deadly defect for years.

Within a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra, Joan Claybrook, a former administrator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the company’s botched handling of the problem was unworthy of GM’s global standing, unacceptable to GM’s customers and a sad insight into GM’s corporate culture.

Documents have demostrated General Motors was aware there was an issue with ignition switches in certain designs of its cars as early as 2004. But no vehicles were recalled until February with this year. In the interim, the defect caused at least 13 known deaths and 31 crashes.

When they are mailed, Claybrook wants the the seriousness of the threat made clear, even though recall notices have not yet been sent to drivers who own certain Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models.

It is imperative that GM’s letter to owners be a true safety alert, emphasizing the genuine possibility of death or severe injury, she wrote to Barra. Often, auto manufacturers do not wish to admit the entire dangers in safety recall letters. I am just writing to urge you to ensure that GM fully informs your customers and puts their safety and lives before concerns about GM’s reputation.

Claybrook served as NHTSA’s administrator from 1977 to 1981, and has been one of the country’s leading road safety advocates. In a written response to questions regarding Clayrbook’s letter, GM said, that approach and the gravity of the recall will be expressed in the letters we send to affected customers.

On Wednesday, current NHTSA officials ramped up their scrutiny of GM’s handling of the defective ignition switches, that may inadvertently slip from the run to the accessory position and turn off airbags and other electronics. The agency sent GM an exclusive order that directs company leaders to answer questions on 107 separate elements of how they handled the problem by April 3.

Among the queries:

– NHTSA wants to know the number of consumer complaints GM received, number of field reports, reports of crashes involving fatalities and injuries and the information on lawsuits both pending and closed.

– What’s the difference from a redesigned ignition switch the business began using in 2007 and the one GM promises to fix the affected cars with now?

– As outlined by a statement from GM North American president Alan Batey, the company’s investigation in the defect was not as robust as it should have been. Describe in detail the ways in which GM’s process had not been as robust as it should have been and GM’s plans (if any) to change its process.

– Define analysis and testing that further determined that a key moves from the run to accessory position, and how that key movement affects airbag deployment.

NHTSA said GM’s responses to its questions must be under oath, associated with an affidavit and signed by a responsible member of the company. Failure to respond by the deadline could lead to a further investigation conducted by the United states Department of Justice, in which the automaker could be subject to criminal penalties.

A DOJ investigation into a deadly vehicular problem doesn’t happen often, but there is precedent. The federal agency investigated Firestone in 2000 after 88 deaths were blamed on defective tires, and the DOJ’s U.S. Attorney’s Office has led a four-year investigation into Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem.

A Department of Justice spokesperson did not return requests for comment on whether or not this was mulling an investigation of General Motors.

GM sales slid one percent year over year in February, once the recall was announced. Analysts are monitoring whether the ongoing problem will affect sales of current models, but believe the impact will be minimal because all the affected vehicles are no longer available for sale. But are watching to discover how the government’s investigation proceeds.

While the timeframe suggests this matter occurred before GM’s restructuring, it’s clear the government holds current management responsible if it finds an absence of urgency and transparency, said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer.