Connecting the Dots in the GM Recall

The General Motors recall of nearly 2.6 million cars due to a manufacturer’s defect linked to 13 deaths poses a perplexing problem for the entire field of auto safety and government oversight.

GM appears to have been negligent in not fixing the faulty ignition switch that, if bumped, could turn off, shutting the engine and disabling the air bags. According to GM’s own documentation, despite years of complaints from customers and warnings from engineering experts, the auto company chose to ignore the issue. Reviews and re-reviews of the problem elicited the same response: No problem.

Yet now the massive recall of its Chevrolet Cobalts and other cars is admission in full that there was indeed a problem — and a fatal one — all along.

The carmaker’s unresponsiveness is a mystery that remains to be solved, even after the release to government investigators of boxfuls of records detailing the history of the ignition switch. The question is not “When did GM know about the problem?” The question is, “Why did the company not act to correct the problem when it found out?”

Was it some flaw in the analytical method used by the engineers? Or a more sinister cause, like not wanting to order a costly recall during a time when GM was already in dire financial straits?

Typically, such a case would inspire calls from consumer advocates for tighter oversight of the industry. We expect to hear them again. But that knee-jerk response would be totally inadequate here for the simple reason that the agency responsible for oversight — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — behaved much as GM did. Inexplicably, the NHTSA decided not to open an inquiry on the ignitions even after its own investigators reported in 2007 that they knew then of four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 other reports that clearly identified the problem, according to a memo released by a House subcommittee on Sunday.

What to do when the regulators fail to regulate?

Fear not. Just call in that tireless, truth-seeking body, that model of bureaucratic efficiency and sober responsibility — the U.S. Congress. Yes, those wonderful folks who gave you Washington gridlock and national default will step in to save us from the faulty switch-makers and the faulty federals.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee begins hearings on Tuesday to try to make sense of the 200,000 pages of documents from GM and 6,000 pages furnished by the agency. And on Wednesday, a Senate panel starts work, with Mary T. Barra, General Motors’ chief executive, and David Friedman, the acting NHTSA administrator, scheduled to testify.

As Fred Upton (MI-R), chairman of the House Committee, said recently, “The problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots.”

That, of course, is an observation, not an explanation. We fear that after all the boxes of test reports and internal memos have been opened, tagged and pored over by the honest, hard-working folks on Capitol Hill, we may have lots more red dots and red flags, but little or no connections.

Actually, the NHTSA has already given its explanation. “As we have stated previously, the agency reviewed data from a number of sources in 2007, but the data we had available at the time did not warrant a formal investigation,” it said in a statement on Sunday.

Needless to say, this does not satisfy either. The safety agency has many times launched investigations based on considerably less evidence than found in the GM case. For example, in 2012, a single complaint from an owner who sustained a minor injury when an air bag deployed triggered an investigation into air bag problems on some Hyundai models. Result: the recall last year of 190,000 vehicles.

Why, then, didn’t the NHTSA do the same in this case?

Lack of any convincing explanation could open the way to conspiracy theorizing, along the lines of collusion between Washington and Detroit to keep the auto industry — and the economy in general — going. A less virulent approach, one we’ve already seen, is that a culture of deregulation led to a no-problem mindset.

Except that, as noted, due diligence was done. Everyone involved recognized a problem. They tested, they recorded, they discussed, they reviewed, and reviewed again. And then they decided the problem didn’t need fixing, and they all signed on.

We wish the Congressional investigators success in finding some flaw in the process that can be corrected, or even some culprit to be punished.

But in the end, the mystery may remain a mystery, or at least one we are all familiar with — that of human fallibility. No matter how many safeguards, no matter how much regulatory oversight, problems will occur, mistakes will be made. Even fatal ones.