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Will Feds Catch Problems Like GM Switch Defect under New Administration?

Thursday, March 16, 2017By Richard Alexander

In the current political climate, people wonder whether the various branches of government will change directions drastically or stay the course. One such agency is the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA). This is the agency charged with improving safety on the highways, including issuing safety recalls for defective vehicle parts.

So far, there is no indication of whether the new president or his appointees intend for the agency to operate any differently. The director of the NHTSA has left, and a replacement has not yet been named.

In recent years, the agency has been shifting its focus from reacting to problems with vehicles to a more proactive approach of working with auto manufacturers to head off problems before they show up in accident statistics.

The driving force for this change in style was the General Motors ignition switch recall in 2014. The switches, in various models such as Saturns, Chevys, and Pontiacs, would inexplicably change from the “on” position to the “accessory” position for no apparent reason. The result was that the car’s engine would stop, causing power steering and power brakes to no longer function. Worse, if the driver crashed because of these deficiencies, the airbags would not inflate. More than 100 people are considered to have been killed in such crashes and many others have been injured.

GM personnel knew of problems with the switch as early as 2004. Until the recall was finally issued, much damage had been done. In the aftermath, the NHTSA set out to understand how both the automaker and the agency had failed to recognize the magnitude of the problem sooner.

What it determined is that GM and the NHTSA personnel were lacking in technical knowledge of modern airbags such that both failed to “connect the dots,” so to speak, between the unanticipated action of the switch and the non-deployment of airbags. Further, the NHTSA faulted GM for not providing adequate information to the agency about the problem, and it faulted itself for not holding the company accountable for its failure.

The NHTSA now seeks to enhance its personnel’s technical knowledge while fostering better communication with automakers on the front end of more advanced technology being introduced into cars. The outgoing director of the NHTSA, Mark Rosekind, remarked that premarket approval may be needed in some situations.

Hopefully, the NHTSA will continue on a positive track under the new administration. However, there has been much talk of downsizing government regulation of the business world. The NHTSA’s goal of more closely monitoring technology development could be opposed by the industry and place the NHTSA back into pure reactive mode.

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