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NHTSA accountability–where should it start?

The General Motors defective ignition systems led to the deaths of at least 19 people in crashes of vehicles, and the death toll could be much higher.

The internal investigation provided to GM’s Board after the carmaker eventually recalled vehicle’s equipped with the defective ignitions was scathing, pointing to GMs byzantine culture where numerous departments failed to have any idea of events taking place on issues related to the defective ignition switches.

And Congress has held hearings, where members issued equally scathing statements regarding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency responsible for regulating the car companies and improving traffic safety.

One congressional representative called the acting head of the agency the “the face of failure.”

It is true the agency should have discovered the defective switches far earlier than 2014, when GM finally recalled cars with the dangerous switches. NHTSA received information regarding one tragic crash from a state trooper that should have alerted the agency to the problem in 2007.

But if the chief of NHTSA is the face of failure, then Congress should be careful about looking in the mirror. It is Congress that provides the funding and sets the agenda for the NHTSA to create regulations and procedures to enforce those laws and regulations.

And don’t forget, GM itself, failed to detect the problem for years, even after they were sued and their legal department was working on the case.

This is not an easy issue to address and there is no “simple” solution. Modern cars are very complex, and next week we will look at how difficult it can be to figure out where a problem lies in sophisticated vehicle.

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