When car companies like GM act so deplorably, NHTSA is needed more than ever.

Years before GM cars with faulty ignition switches were linked to a series of fatal accidents, the nation's car safety watchdog had chance after chance to spot the defect and push General Motors to recall its deadly cars.

Instead, the watchdog wagged its tail and meekly rolled over — and not for the first time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — long ago a standard-setter for safety regulators — has repeatedly failed to spot defects, pursue investigations forcefully or use its powers to get defective cars off the road.

NHTSA: We've instituted reforms

In the late 1990s, the agency came under fire for failing to spot a pattern of rollovers of Ford Explorers with Firestone tires that ultimately killed more than 200 people. Congress approved new laws, giving the agency more power and better access to industry data. But NHTSA squandered both.

As the GM debacle shows, it is as timid and slow-footed as ever.

The latest evidence of NHTSA's ineptitude came Monday in an investigation by The New York Times.

Among the findings:

  • Even consumers flag defects faster than the agency. Before the GM ignition-switch scandal broke, NHTSA received 2,000 complaints about GM vehicles unexpectedly stalling on the road. Consumers scoured the Internet on their own, finding a pattern of similar events. A lawyer hired by one driver who nearly had an accident warned of the stalling problem in 2004. The agency was unmoved, often replying that there was "insufficient evidence" to start a recall investigation.

  • NHTSA also runs a dubious safety rating system for automobiles. In February, GM was busy touting the five-star ratings for its 2014 Chevys. A day later it began recalling many of those same cars for safety defects. But NHTSA left the five-star ratings intact, deceiving the public.

  • With powers granted in 2000, NHTSA can question automakers about claims they receive blaming defects for deaths or injuries. But the agency has used the powers timidly, telling the industry that the answers were optional. Some companies used the option to just say no.

On the heels of the Times report, NHTSA faced fire from all directions Tuesday. A report by Republicans on a House committee excoriated the agency's handling of GM, saying that some officials did not understand the technology that was key to the defect. At a Senate hearing, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took David Friedman, NHTSA's deputy administrator, to task for shifting blame to GM. "Shame on GM," she said. "But you have got to take some responsibility."

GM withheld key information from regulators. It settled cases secretly, ignored actions by its own employees and left dangerous cars on the road for a decade. But when companies act so deplorably, safety watchdogs are needed most. Whether because of corruption, capture by the industry or just plain cluelessness, NHTSA failed.

Congress wants to beef up the agency's powers and open more data to the public. OK. But an empowered lapdog is still a lapdog. What's needed is leadership that changes the agency's ways.

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