General Motors is taking the brunt of the condemnation for faulty ignition switches that led to at least 13 deaths, but it's not the only organization under scrutiny. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can also expect more attention as the GM story continues to unfold.
No matter what, the agency will continue to rely on automakers to analyze car safety, which means the system is still imperfect.
The latest news is as follows: GM recalled an additional 8.5 million vehicles last week, bringing the total to an unprecedented 29 million and calling into question its reputation for quality. At the same time, victim compensation attorney Kenneth Feinberg announced reparation packages for victims of the defective GM cars, starting with $1 million for a death caused by the faulty ignition and $300,000 for a surviving spouse and each dependent. (For an overview of Feinberg's methods, see my colleague James Oliphant's excellent profile that ran in National Journal magazine last summer.)
The pressure is expanding beyond GM. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are asking NHTSA for its data on recall and defect petitions dating back to 1990. The two lawmakers have been consistently pressuring the agency to be more aggressive in warning drivers about the dangers of automobile problems that could cause accidents. They sponsor legislation to require NHTSA to make all of their data on car fatalities available in a searchable database, which would be a boon for independent auto watchdogs.
As GM's problems continue to spiral, expect the administration to feel more ripple effects of public outrage. The only question is whether there will be any apparent change in government oversight. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said reforms of the highway safety agency would be welcome, but he declined to detail what they would be.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made clear that NHTSA needs cooperation from the auto industry in order to do its job. It relies on timely information from automakers about potential defects in order to warn consumers. The threat of big fines if they don't will, in theory, drive the manufacturers' to 'fess up.
"We will always have to be working with industry on these issues to promote safety," Foxx said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "It is far more expensive for a company to go through a situation like this and fix it than it would be for them to catch it on the front end."
In the case of GM, Foxx said NHTSA investigators didn't have all of the relevant information to trigger alarms earlier. If investigators had known of anecdotal concerns that were floating around GM, it would have changed how they viewed the data they had already gathered. Foxx didn't outline how the agency would have reacted had it known, which may cause the agency's critics to continue to press for more transparency.
"I don't think this is an issue where NHTSA wasn't looking at this," he said. "NHTSA didn't have all the information that would have been material to its review."
Foxx has asked DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel to review its protocols to see if there are ways the safety agency can identify and correct problems in cars before they kill people. In testimony before Congress in April, Scovel didn't offer any major criticisms, although a forthcoming audit of safety issues could reveal something we don't know. NHTSA is reworking how it handles consumer complaints and when to use independent test facilities. That's what the inspector general recommended in 2010 when Toyota was under fire for sticky accelerator pedals that resulted in at least three deaths.
Here again, cooperation with manufacturers is critical to the process, and even the inspector general agrees that will continue to be the case. The problem with the GM and Toyota debacles is that the manufacturers kept their concerns under wraps. The only way to stop that from happening again is to punish companies gravely when their cover-ups come to light. And that's not a fail-safe solution.
For our insiders: How can the government ensure an open relationship with automakers? Are big fines when they fail to come forward the answer? How well does NHTSA respond to complaints now? What can they do better? What role do watchdog groups play? Can they do more? What are the odds that we'll see another scandal like GM or Toyota in the next five years?
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