Head Auto Regulator Torn Apart By Senate Hearing Over GM Defects

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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A congressional report released Tuesday has revealed that federal auto regulators are actually to blame for General Motors’ poor recall and reporting measures, which ultimately led to 19 deaths.

Just a day after National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Deputy Administrator David Friedman blasted GM for its flawed culture in failing to deal with car defects, Congress slammed Friedman in a hearing.

Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did not correctly identify recurring problems with ignition switches, problems they had the power and information to recognize, Reuters reports. According to the report released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, both GM and the NHTSA share culpability for the defective ignition switches.

“It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn’t identify the warnings,” said Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, which originally released the findings.

A secondary hearing at the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee was held to question Friedman on the agency’s failure to detect the defects and prevent needless deaths. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chairs the subcommittee was at first sympathetic to Friedman’s testimony, but quickly became irate and reamed out Friedman for obfuscating and failing to take responsibility.

“Even a month before the recall, NHTSA was telling consumers there was insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation. It is hard to sit here and watch you rationalize and excuse this regulatory agency. It appears you are digging yourself a hole. You can’t see the forest for the trees,” said McCaskill to Friedman.

“NHTSA was not proactive. It was reactive. Your supposed watchdog agency had neither bark nor bite and lead consumers to have a false sense of security through your ratings system. NHTSA hit the snooze,” said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey.

“Is it a culture of capture? Is it a culture of corruption? Is it incompetence?” asked Markey, looking for an explanation of the agency’s failures.

The defect in GM cars comes into play when the switches accidentally move from the “run” setting to “accessory,” meaning that power is cut to power bags and electronic steering. GM has come under extreme scrutiny, facing a fine of $35 million from the Department of Transportation and investigation from the Department of Justice. The switches are present in 2.5 million GM automobiles.

Previously, GM only admitted 13 deaths, but after more criticism from Congress, the automaker updated the figure to 19. GM has not yet determined the amount of compensation it is willing to offer, but the figure is likely to be sizeable in order to avoid lawsuits. Preliminary estimates put the number between $400 to $600 million dollars.

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