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Congressional Panels Chastise NHTSA Over GM Ignition Problems


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also known as NHTSA, is coming under fire from Congress. A House panel really overlooked or failed to understand early warnings of ignition problems in some GM cars. The automaker began recalling the cars earlier this year. A Senate panel meanwhile grilled the acting head of the agency, saying that it's grown too close to the automakers it's supposed to be regulating. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The report was released by Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They say the safety agency ignored reports in a 2006 crash that killed two teenagers in Wisconsin. A state trooper investigating the crash found that the car's airbags failed to deploy because the car's ignition switch was in the accessory position. But NHTSA overlooked the flaw, according to the report. Nineteen deaths have been linked to the ignition switch problem. On the other side of the Capitol, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said NHTSA was too cozy with the industry.

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: That reflects obviously on an agency that is perhaps more interested in singing "Kumbaya" with the manufacturers than being a cop on the beat.

NAYLOR: Lawmakers were critical that the agency made it optional for auto companies to answer a basic question about what may have caused fatal crashes and that no changes have been made at the agency since the recalls began in February. David Friedman is NHTSA's deputy administrator. He said it's not the safety agency but GM that bears the blame for the ignition problem.

DAVID FRIEDMAN: It wasn't simply incompetence on their part. They had policies in place to not mention the word defect in order to shield information from NHTSA. They were actively trying to hide the ball. NHTSA was working hard to find the ball and was missing critical information.

NAYLOR: But Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts wasn't buying that explanation.

SENATOR ED MARKEY: I'm gravely disappointed in the Transportation Department's failure to accept even a shred of responsibility.

NAYLOR: Friedman says the agency needs more money to do its work and that it has gotten tougher on automakers, imposing $140 million in fines over the last five years. And he said he's ended the practice, dating back to the Bush administration, of making answers to questions about what caused a fatal accident optional.

FRIEDMAN: I've personally met individually with 12 major auto manufacturers with a very clear message. There is zero tolerance for failure to quickly notify the agency of a safety defect.

NAYLOR: Lawmakers say the Obama administration also needs to nominate a permanent administrator for the agency. Friedman has been acting as head of NHTSA since December. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 11, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
In a previous version of the Web intro to this story, we incorrectly called the TSA the Transportation Safety Administration. It is the Transportation Security Administration.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.