NHTSA Claim on GM Evidence Challenged by Group’s Analysis

An automobile-safety watchdog is questioning U.S. regulators’ explanation that they didn’t have enough information to justify investigating reports of defective ignition switches that could affect air bags in some General Motors Co. cars.

An analysis of 39 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration air bag-defect investigations shows at least 26 were opened with fewer than 10 consumer complaints, the Center for Auto Safety said in a letter to the agency today. NHTSA received 19 GM reports from 2004 to 2007 on complaints related to potential ignition-switch failures, the watchdog group said.

A spokesman for NHTSA, the auto industry’s main safety regulator, said the agency couldn’t comment because it hadn’t had a chance to review the letter.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, has linked 12 deaths in accidents to the defective switches. The company has been criticized for bottling up information about ignition-switch and air bag failures in engineering task forces, delaying a recall for several years.

NHTSA has said it didn’t have enough information from Detroit-based GM to justify a defect investigation.

“The agency clearly turned a blind eye to the ignition-switch defect if it didn’t see a defect trend,” the Center for Auto Safety’s executive director, Clarence Ditlow, said in a letter to acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman.

Ditlow’s Washington-based research group has been tracking recalls and defects since it was founded by Ralph Nader in 1970.

Congressional Hearings

The center’s analysis comes as Friedman and GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra are preparing to testify before House and Senate panels next week. The committees are examining the responses of GM and NHTSA to reports of engine stalling and air bag failures since 2003 that may have been related to flawed ignition switches in small cars including the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5.

GM released videos on its website today with Barra responding to consumer questions about last month’s recall of 1.6 million cars worldwide to replace ignition switches.

In the 39 air-bag investigations since 2000 included in the Center for Auto Safety’s analysis, only three had a fatality. Fifteen of the 39 had injuries, and most of those were minor, he said.

“Did NHTSA miss the Cobalt ignition because it made an error of omission or commission?” Ditlow asked. “This analysis shows an error was made and people died.”

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