General Motors published an article in February on its Chevrolet website trumpeting an achievement certain to help sell a lot of cars. Its 2014 Chevys had earned more five-star overall safety ratings in a new-car assessment program than had any other brand.
The next day, GM began recalling millions of its cars for a deadly ignition defect, and by August, six of the eight five-star Chevrolet models had been recalled for a range of safety issues, including defects in air bags, brakes and steering. Five had been recalled multiple times.
It was an embarrassing turn, but not just for the embattled automaker. The stellar rankings had been awarded by the federal regulatory agency that is mandated by Congress to ensure the safety of automobiles.
The agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has a record of missteps that goes well beyond its failure to detect an ignition switch defect in models of GM cars now linked to at least 13 deaths.
An investigation by The New York Times into the agency’s handling of major safety defects over the past decade found that it frequently has been slow to identify problems, tentative to take action and reluctant to employ its full legal powers against companies.
The Times analyzed agency correspondence, regulatory documents and public databases and interviewed congressional and executive branch investigators, former agency employees and auto safety experts. It found that in many of the major vehicle safety issues of recent years — including unintended acceleration in Toyotas, fires in Jeep fuel tanks and air bag ruptures in Hondas, as well as the GM ignition defect — the agency did not take a leading role until well after the problems had reached a crisis level, safety advocates had sounded alarms and motorists were injured or died.
Not only does the agency spend about as much money rating new cars — a favorite marketing tool for automakers — as it does investigating potentially deadly manufacturing defects, but it also has been so deferential to automakers that it made a key question it poses about fatal accidents optional — a policy it is only now changing after inquiries from The Times.
In 2007, Jean Bookout was injured, and her passenger, Barbara Schwarz, was killed when the 2005 Toyota Camry that Bookout was driving in Oklahoma suddenly accelerated through an intersection and hit an embankment. When the safety agency inquired about the cause of the accident in 2010, the Japanese automaker replied, “Toyota understands that this request is optional and respectfully declines to respond at this time.”
Three years later, Toyota paid $3 million in compensatory damages after having been found guilty in a lawsuit the two women’s families brought against the company. And in March, a federal judge approved a $1.2 billion settlement of criminal charges that Toyota concealed unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles for years.
By the time General Motors began recalling cars this year for ignition defects that could cause stalling, the agency had logged more than 2,000 complaints about the issue in the recalled models, some from consumers who had picked up on patterns in the agency’s database that its own investigators missed or did not look for.
After Chrysler balked last year at the regulator’s suggested 2.7 million-vehicle recall for exploding fuel tanks in its Jeeps, the federal agency scaled back its request by 1.1 million cars. It also agreed to Chrysler’s demand that the automaker not be required to say the vehicles had a safety defect or that the automaker was at fault. The agency has linked 51 deaths and at least two serious injuries to the defect over 14 years.
And four years ago, the agency cut short an investigation into rupturing air bags in Honda vehicles, saying there was “insufficient information” to suggest that the companies had failed to take timely action. Since then, more than 13 million more cars have been recalled by Honda and 10 other automakers for the rupture risk, and Honda has linked two deaths to the defect.
The agency declined to make regulators available for interviews, agreeing only to reply to written questions.
“N.H.T.S.A. has a proven record of aggressively investigating and pursuing recalls,” the agency wrote.
It added: “N.H.T.S.A. evaluates each potential safety defect issue based on the particular circumstances involved and does not have a set threshold for opening defect investigations beyond our core mission of reducing fatalities and injuries from motor vehicle crashes.”
The agency, created in 1970, is part of the Transportation Department and has an annual budget of about $800 million, which is split among vehicle safety, highway safety research and grants geared toward promoting traffic safety at the state level.
While traffic fatalities have fallen considerably since its creation in part because of safety improvements in vehicles, the agency has a history of falling short of expectations in policing automakers and fulfilling its investigations mission.
On Tuesday, the Senate subcommittee that questioned GM’s chief executive, Mary Barra, in two charged hearings on the ignition switch defect will turn its focus to the safety agency.
The session comes as the Transportation Department’s inspector general is conducting an audit of the agency’s handing of the GM switch issue, an inquiry that people familiar with the effort say has been widened to look at how effectively the agency carries out its mission beyond the GM case.
A primary focus of the inquiry, these people said, is the so-called pre-investigation phase of the agency’s work, when the engineers and other specialists in its Office of Defects Investigation decide whether to proceed with a full investigation of a possible safety defect.