The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is likely looking into whether General Motors was too slow to report problems that led to 13 deaths and a massive recall of small cars. According to a report in The Associated Press, General Motors this week doubled to 1.6 million the number of small cars being recalled to repair faulty ignition switches linked to several fatal crashes. The company also issued a rare apology saying that it is “deeply sorry” that its process to examine the problem was not swift enough. NHTSA officials have said in a statement that they are reviewing GM documents and have questions about when they notified regulators.
On Feb. 13, the automaker recalled more than 780,000 model year 2005 to 2007 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles. This week, it doubled that number adding 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). According to GM, a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position and shut off the engine and electrical power, knocking power out of the brakes and disabling the front airbags. This problem has been linked to 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths. In the case of the deaths, the airbags did not inflate. It is unclear if the ignition switch caused the crashes or if people died because the airbags failed to deploy.
Chronology of the Problem
Documentation submitted by GM to NHTSA details the chronology of this problem, which began in 2004 – 10 years ago. In 2006, eight years ago, GM changed the keyhole design after getting complaints about eh issue. In 2007, NHTSA informed GM about two deaths and after some investigation, GM learned of four crashes where the ignition was in the accessory position at the time of the collision.
In 2009, GM changed the top of the key from a slot design to a hole design, deciding that the real problem was heavy key chains dragging the ignition out of position. In 2010, GM got rid of the Chevy Cobalt. In 2011, GM teamed up with experts from the Field Performance Assessment and Product Investigations to investigate the lack of airbag deployment. It was not until 2013 that GM “discovered” that the ignition switches in early model Cobalt vehicles did not meet GM’s torque specification.
Where are the Penalties?
Based on the chronology of facts submitted by GM and the automaker’s apology, it is apparent that GM knew about these vehicle defects for about a decade and took very little action to fix the problem. It did not issue a recall for a decade. Would that be sufficient for the NHTSA to slap a $35-million fine or more? The agency has already let GM slide in 2007 and again in 2014 when it only issued a partial recall. It’s time NHTSA takes a strong position and demand the truth. When did the automaker learn of the 13 deaths? Why was a recall not issued years ago? After 10 years of feet-dragging and 13 deaths, “deeply sorry” seems deeply inadequate – to put it very mildly.