Recently General Motors Co. agreed to pay a $35 million fine to the federal government to settle a U.S. Auto-Safety investigation which concluded that GM had failed to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), within five working days as required by law, of its having discovered a safety defect in some of GM’s vehicles. Unlike as with the Veterans Administration, it would appear that NHTSA is fulfilling its role of motor vehicle safety hound dog, sniffing out safety defects and protecting the lives of the American people on the nation’s roads and highways.
But not so fast, One of the things I learned during my three years as NHTSA Administrator under President Bush senior is that NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations is supposed to notify the motor vehicle manufacturers when a detect has been detected and then work with the manufacturer to decide how and when the repairs can be carried out. That is, the manufacturer doesn’t tell the government that a motor vehicle defect has been discovered; the government tells the manufacturer, and they jointly come up with an agreed upon procedure to fix it and save American lives on our highways.
It is NHTSA’s job to constantly monitor the state of motor vehicle safety on the nation’s roads and highways. So by law the State Police immediately report to NHTSA all serious accidents, especially those that result in deaths. NHTSA screens and analyzes these reports plus reports of previous investigations, accidents, injuries, fatalities and law suits concerning the alleged defect, including frequency and severity.
It pours over information from letters, phone calls, consumer groups, state and local governments, inquiries from members of Congress plus any previous requests for information on the subject of the possible defect. NHTSA also scans manufacturers’ service and technical bulletins for any signs of a suspected defect.
Additionally, the public is quite active in providing information to NHTSA through the NHTSA auto safety hotline. It isn’t unusual for NHTSA to receive tens of thousands of phone calls a month seeking information on or reporting on motor vehicle suspected defects.
Whenever these sources of information indicate that there is a possible adverse safety trend or motor vehicle defect, NHTSA initiates an immediate and in depth investigation to determine whether or not the possible defect poses an unreasonable risk to the public or constitutes a safety defect. If a motor vehicle safety defect is found to actually exist, unlike what happens in the Veterans Administration, NHTSA is required by law to mandate a safety recall and to see to it that the manufacturer corrects the safety defect immediately, and at no cost to the vehicle owner.
Once, when I was NHTSA Administrator, GM was trying to drag its feet on fixing a safety defect. I immediately called a meeting and GM’s engineers, technicians and lawyers came to my office and tried to talk me out of their having to initiate a motor vehicle safety recall. I asked which of them would like to volunteer to go to jail, because I had already talked to the Department of Justice and, depending on the outcome of the meeting, DOJ was prepared to file criminal charges against G.M.
Miracle of miracles, we were able to reach agreement in about half an hour. That’s the last time a motor vehicle manufacturer complained to me about their being asked to initiate a motor vehicle safety recall.
Citizen safety is a constant balancing act. If the manufacturer is given the authority to decide when a motor vehicle traffic safety defect exists, few would be found. It is the government’s responsibility to safeguard our citizens not a manufacturer headquartered in the city of Detroit.
As of now, no one seems to know who is responsible for the safety of the driving public, just as no one seems to know who in the VA is responsible for the lives being lost to the medical bureaucracy’s unintentional murder boards.
Image: Courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ncindc/3229050640/