NHTSA was frustrated by GM delays to issue safety recall

Article by Andrew Christian, on April 21, 2014

The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was frustrated by the fact the General Motors took other smaller steps instead of issuing a safety recall on its vehicles, according to a report by Automotive News. In 2012, NHTSA officials took notice of a routine service bulletin that GM sent to Buick and Chevrolet dealerships, referencing the possibility of a component inside the driver's airbag to be damaged.

NHTSA later said the damaged component could keep the airbag from deploying properly. Still, GM's approach had the issue hidden from customers. GM and NHTSA held discussions for months, and with the carmaker recalling around 7,000 cars. NHTSA, however, believed that GM failed to do enough and opened a probe into the matter last summer to determine whether the recall should include 400,000 vehicles instead.

"This was particularly frustrating," Frank Borris, director of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, wrote July 2013 in an e-mail to Carmen Benavides, a GM official overseeing safety probe. Borris said that in the e-mail that the flaw was a (fairly obvious) safety issue.

The e-mail was released by a U.S. House committee that is probing into GM's faulty ignition-switch recall. It points to practices that catapulted the carmaker into a huge crisis it is currently facing. When GM first tackled reports of cars stalling and ignitions shifting into "accessory" mode, the carmaker did not issue a recall but instead sent an unpublicized service bulletin blaming heavy key rings and telling dealers to offer plastic key inserts to complaining customers.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. took a similar approach in 2002, when it sent dealers a bulletin over "engine surging" in some models like the Camry. GM waited seven more years before it issued recalls for sticking accelerators pedals and ill-fitting floor mats.

Toyota eventually paid record fines to NHTSA and reached a $1.2-billion settlement agreement with the Justice Department. As for GM, it took the carmaker nine years and at least 11 more deaths since issuing the bulletin before it issued a recall and notified customers directly. [source: automotive news - sub. required]

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