Asleep at the Wheel

In 2004, GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had a secret meeting in which the attendees inexplicably agreed that cars that stalled on the road all by themselves was not necessarily a safety problem. Ten years later, the consequences of that meeting have been laid bare -- the deaths of at least 21 people from a faulty ignition switch that caused Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions to turn off, causing cars to crash and preventing the deployment of airbags that could have saved lives.

NHTSA kept getting reports of fatal accidents caused by mysterious GM engine stalls -- it even asked its contractors to investigate two of them in 2005 and 2006. But NHTSA did nothing with these reports, even though both of them found that the airbags did not deploy and that the engine was off at the time of the crashes.

In 2007, NHTSA asked for and received a secret document from GM related to the death of two Wisconsin teenagers. I made that document public for the first time at a May Senate hearing. It included a report by the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy that said that the ignition switch defect prevented airbags from deploying. It also found other examples of the same problem happening in other cars and identified a 2005 GM warning to dealers about the issue. That document correctly identified the safety defect, yet no action was taken by NHTSA.

Earlier this summer, GM CEO Mary Barra and others agreed with me that the public would probably have rejected the conclusion that cars stalling all by themselves was not a safety problem if they had known about it, and that people's lives could have been saved if the documents NHTSA and GM kept secret had been made public sooner.

Yet NHTSA, which had a decade of meetings, reports, and secret documents submitted by GM that all described fatal accidents involving ignition switches that caused cars to stall all by themselves, has failed to accept even a shred of responsibility for the loss of these lives.

While innocent Americans were getting behind the wheel of defective vehicles, NHTSA was asleep at the wheel.

Last week, GM and I reached substantial agreement on a modified version of the legislation I introduced with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal that will ensure the public disclosure of information about fatal auto accidents that might have been caused by safety defects. The Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act is simple -- it would require NHTSA to make the information about potentially fatal safety defects it receives from automakers public, instead of continuing to keep it secret. This legislation will enable the public Early Warning Reporting system to provide actual early warnings about dangerous vehicles.

GM's agreement on our proposal is no small step, because for years, automakers have all opposed my efforts to make more vital safety information public. In 2000, I worked with my colleagues in the House of Representatives to create the Early Warning Reporting System as part of the auto safety law passed to deal with the Ford/Firestone rollover defect that killed more than 250 people. Although I argued that the law required maximum public disclosure of information, NHTSA acquiesced to automakers' desires to keep vital safety information secret when it issued the final rules.

In 2010, when Congress learned about the Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration safety defect, I wrote an amendment to require the public disclosure of documents about fatal accidents that could have been caused by safety defects. But automakers opposed efforts to increase transparency then as well, and the provisions did not get enacted into law.

NHTSA's failure to identify the GM ignition switch defect is not the first time it has abdicated its responsibility to take quick action to warn the public and get unsafe cars off the road. Whether it was unintended acceleration in Toyotas, recalling Jeeps that experienced deadly fires as a result of faulty fuel tanks, or exploding air bags in Hondas, NHTSA has all too often taken a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach to safety rules.

And in the GM case -- when the company itself has taken responsibility for its failings -- NHTSA has not acknowledged its own culpability, it has not apologized to the families who have lost children, siblings, spouses and parents, and it has not yet announced strong measures to ensure that it does not fail the American public this way in the future.

I simply do not have the confidence that NHTSA will take more aggressive action to act on the secret documents it receives about defective cars and warn the public about any dangers without legislation to mandate it. We need accountability for an organization that turns a blind eye when it knows harm is being done.

This is the least we can do for the lives that have been lost and the families that are still struggling for justice. We cannot allow the next chapter in this automobile safety tragedy to have the same ending.