Auto safety agency sets re­forms

U.S. reg­u­la­tor ad­mits flaws, ini­ti­ates changes af­ter fail­ures in Gen­eral Mo­tors case.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - As­so­ci­ated press

The U.S. gov­ern­ment’s auto safety agency ac­knowl­edged Fri­day that a deadly de­fect in Gen­eral Mo­tors ig­ni­tion switches went un­re­solved for a decade be­cause agency staffers didn’t un­der­stand air bag tech­nol­ogy and failed to chal­lenge the in­for­ma­tion it re­ceived from the au­tomaker.

The mea culpa came Fri­day as the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion out­lined ac­tions de­signed to make it­self more ag­gres­sive in f in­d­ing and solv­ing safety prob­lems among the 240 mil­lion cars on U.S. road­ways.

It’s the first time the agency has ad­mit­ted fault in fail­ing to link the switches to a se­ries of fa­tal ac­ci­dents, although reg­u­la­tors still lay most of the blame on GM for hid­ing the de­fect.

The GM switches, used in older-model small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, can slip out of the run po­si­tion and abruptly cut off the en­gine and dis­able the air bags. They’re re­spon­si­ble for at least 109 deaths and more than 200 in­juries. The com­pany re­called 2.6 mil­lion cars with the switches last year.

Staffers lacked the tech­ni­cal know-how to connect the chang­ing po­si­tion of the switches to the non-de­ploy­ment of the air bags, NHTSA said in two re­ports is­sued Fri­day. They also failed to press GM when the au­tomaker pro­vided in­suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion about some of the fa­tal crashes.

NHTSA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Mark Rosekind said the case changed the agency’s cul­ture. Pre­vi­ously, it was too trust­ing of data and safety the­o­ries of­fered by au­tomak­ers, but now in­ves­ti­ga­tors are ask­ing the tough ques­tions, Rosekind said.

“We need to chal­lenge the as­sump­tions of what we are pur­su­ing,” he said.

Although a cul­ture change is needed, the agency con­cedes it will be dif­fi­cult to keep up with emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies with­out more peo­ple and money. Stay­ing abreast of tech­nol­ogy is im­por­tant as more car func­tions be­come com­put­er­ized. Ex­perts say the av­er­age car now has about 100 com­put­ers on board, and that will dou­ble in a few years.

The re­ports make a num­ber of rec­om­men­da­tions: hold­ing au­tomak­ers accountable if they don’t pro­duce re­quested in­for­ma­tion; gain­ing bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of new tech­nol­ogy; and hav­ing the whole agency ex­am­ine safety prob­lems. The changes are in place or are un­der­way, Rosekind said. The agency also ap­pointed a three-per­son out­side team to mon­i­tor safety pro­cesses.

The re­view found no agency em­ploy­ees at fault for fail­ing to find the GM prob­lem. No one at NHTSA in­ten­tion­ally acted to hide it, Rosekind said. “That’s dif­fer­ent than find­ing some­body with all good in­ten­tions made a hu­man er­ror,” he said.

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