The scandal concerning Volkswagen and its not so clean diesel technology is a safety issue on a broad scale. The pollution poured into the atmosphere because of Volkswagen's malfeasance is a real threat in many ways. It does not, however, have a direct connection to car crashes that we know of. The issue does raise a number of concerns about auto safety, however. If a company like Volkswagen is willing to engage in cheating on this scale, risking billion of dollars of fines and damage to their brand (not to mention to the environment), it is safe to wonder how far they might go to cover up deadly auto defects.
The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently discussed the Volkswagen issue and suggested that regulators might be less inclined to take the automakers word at face value going forward. Why anyone would take the word of a corporation with a financial incentive to lie is an open question. That said, greater scrutiny would obviously be a welcome change to those familiar with the safety record of many car companies.
For years, the NHTSA has been criticized for its buddy-buddy relationship with automakers. Many questioned whether the NHTSA truly had the stomach to take car companies to task when they endangered the public. This criticism came to the forefront recently with regard to the GM ignition switch defects that plagued its vehicles for years and have been tied to 124 deaths to date. The response of the NHTSA was far from adequate. GM clearly had no fear of the regulator and did very little to address the problem until years after it was discovered.
Volkswagen's actions should not be surprising to many. Clean air doesn't improve Volkswagen's stock, so it is of no importance to the automaker. Likewise, individual lives lost due to a defect are of little importance to a large company. Unless there is a threat to the bottom line, unless lawsuits and fines are larger than the profit to be gained by the leaving the defective vehicles on the road, automakers will do nothing.
Source: Detroit Free Press, "NHTSA chief challenges automakers in wake of GM, VW cases," by Greg Gardner, 22 September 2015