Safety watchdog under fire in General Motors recall

American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration faces accusations of inaction over ‘fatal’ Chevrolet problem

Wreck: a Chevrolet Cobalt whose driver was killed in a crash linked to a manufacturing defect. Photograph: NHTSA/New York Times

Wreck: a Chevrolet Cobalt whose driver was killed in a crash linked to a manufacturing defect. Photograph: NHTSA/New York Times


The American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is under fire over accusations that it failed to act swiftly enough in the recent General Motors recall.

The recall, which affects more than a million vehicles – mostly US-market Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s but also a handful of European-specification Opel GTs – is to do with the vehicles’ ignition system failing and causing high-speed stalls.

The problem also affects the safety systems of the car, including the brakes and airbags. There are reports that as many as 13 fatal collisions took place as a result of the issue before action was taken.

The safety watchdog, which monitors accidents and vehicle safety across the US, has the power to compel a carmaker to issue a recall notice if it decides there is sufficient concern about safety.

GM has been under most pressure, including receiving criticism that it knew of the problem for as much as 10 years before it took any action.

According to the New York Times , the watchdog received 260 complaints relating to the issue between 2003 and 2013, the decade in which both it and GM are being accused of inaction.

Those 260 complaints were part of 8,000 complaints about the same vehicle types that did not specifically mention the ignition system.

The New York Times says that complainants received only formulaic letters of response – and that, in one case, a woman who complained three times about her daughter’s car cutting out got no response at all.

In a reply to the article, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pointed out that 260 complaints amounts to 0.018 per cent of the total number of vehicles under investigation in that period.

But the agency has now been criticised by its former director Joan Claybrook, who ran it in the 1970s. Claybrook, who is now a safety activist, told the newspaper that the agency lacks the modelling skills to track trends in such complaints.

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