Regulators Twice Failed to Open GM Probes

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Internal Email at Agency Asked Why Airbags Weren’t Deploying.

Congressional investigators looking into why General Motors Co. GM -0.89% took nearly a decade to recall vehicles with faulty ignition switches said Sunday that federal regulators twice declined to open formal probes into complaints about the cars and that GM rejected a proposed fix for the problem in 2005 because it would have taken too long and cost too much.

The findings by staff for the Republican majority of the House Energy and Commerce Committee offer new details about events leading up to GM’s recall of 2.6 million vehicles for ignition-switch defects now linked to 13 deaths.

Investigations by the House panel, a Senate committee, regulators and federal prosecutors are continuing. A memorandum produced by House investigators based on their review of evidence so far indicates that lawmakers will press both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on why they missed several opportunities during the past decade to alert the public to the dangers posed by cars that could suddenly shut down, disabling air bags, power steering and power brakes.

The House committee investigators found that NHTSA safety officials twice considered launching formal probes into whether GM cars had a defect that kept air bags from opening in crashes and that they twice concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to act.

In September 2007, the then-head of NHTSA’s defect assessments division emailed other officials in the Office of Defects Investigation recommending a probe into why front air bags weren’t deploying in crashes involving 2003-2006 Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions.

The recommendation cited “a pattern of reported nondeployments” in complaints filed with the agency. The defect assessments division, or DAD, in a presentation listed 29 complaints, 4 fatal crashes and 14 field reports of problems with Cobalt and Ion air bags, the House memo says.

“Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of nondeployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers,” the email, which is cited by House investigators, said.

But on Nov. 15, 2007, NHTSA officials concluded there was no discernible trend, and it decided not to pursue the matter, the House memo states.

In 2010, NHTSA officials again considered data on whether the Cobalt had a problem with malfunctioning air bags but again decided there was no trend, the memo states.

House investigators say in their memo that they are pursuing these questions: Why didn’t GM recall the affected vehicles sooner; why did the auto maker approve a switch that didn’t meet its specifications; and why didn’t NHTSA move in 2007 or 2010 to investigate whether there was a defect trend in the Chevrolet Cobalt data.

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