Feds order GM to explain recall lag – USA TODAY
Federal safety officials on Wednesday ordered General Motors to provide detailed information on why it took so long to recall 1.37 million cars in the U.S. for a faulty ignition switch that could shut off the engine and disable safety systems.
The order lists 107 specific questions that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants answered under oath by April 3, starting with why the automaker didn’t fix the switches in 2004 when it first noticed a problem.
GM has linked the faulty switches — which can slip from “run” into “accessory,” shutting off the engine and killing power to safety systems, including air bags — to 31 crashes and 13 deaths.
NHTSA ORDER: Download PDF of order with questions GM must answer
The questions are part of a “timeliness” investigation opened by NHTSA into the recall. Federal rules give automakers five business days to report a safety defect to the agency or face up to a $35 million fine, as well as a possible criminal investigation.
The questions follow GM’s filing of a chronology of its actions on the problems. NHTSA wants:
• A complete record of incidents, crashes and fatalities involving the defect that GM was made aware of over the years. That includes consumer complaints, warranty claims, dealer and other reports from the field and lawsuits and arbitration proceedings pending and settled or otherwise closed.
• Specific details on the switch. The government wants to know what exactly allows it to fail. It also wants to know what modifications GM and supplier Delphi made to it — and why they were made — before and after the part’s number changed for the 2008 model year. GM’s chronology indicates that the part was modified, without the number changing, sometime in the 2007 model year.
• Full details of decisions made over the years within GM by people who were handling reports of problems with the switch, decisions that did not lead to a recall until this year. NHTSA tells GM to name the people.
“It appears that the government is taking an aggressive approach, which is the right way,” says Lance Cooper, a Marietta, Ga., lawyer who represented the estate of a woman killed in a crash in which the ignition key was in “accessory.”
Depositions related to Cooper’s case show that GM engineers knew in 2004 that the ignition switch had a problem, about when the then-new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt compact hit the market.
A GM statement on the order said: “We are fully cooperating with NHTSA and we welcome the opportunity to help the agency have a full understanding of the facts. In addition to getting NHTSA the information they need, we are doing what we can now to ensure our customers’ safety and peace of mind. We want our customers to know that today’s GM is committed to fixing this problem in a manner that earns their trust.”
GM spokesman Greg Martin also noted on Wednesday that CEO May Barra wrote in a letter to employees this week that the company is conducting an “internal review to give us an unvarnished report on what happened.”
“While the time-frame suggests this issue occurred before GM’s (2009 bankruptcy) restructuring, it’s clear the government will hold current management responsible if it finds a lack of urgency and transparency,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
The automaker had maintained before the recall that the cars involved were safe because they could be steered and stopped, even when the key slips out of “run,” turns off the engine and eliminates power assist to the steering and brakes. GM also has noted that in some of the crashes now linked to the problem, safety belts weren’t being used, and alcohol and speeding were factors.
Beyond the initial discovery of the problem in 2004, GM in 2005 got other reports of the issue. The most dramatic evidence was a 2006 crash in Wisconsin that killed two teenage girls after the driver, who survived, veered off the road at 71 mph, flew across a driveway and slammed into trees in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt, one of the models now recalled.
A crash-investigation “SWAT team” commissioned by NHTSA probed the crash and reported in 2007 that according to the car’s data recorder, the ignition switch was in “accessory” instead of “run,” and the front air bags didn’t deploy. It also noted that there already were several complaints in NHTSA’s own database about similar, if less violent, incidents.
Recalled in the U.S.: 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. Dealers will replace the ignition switches on those models next month, once they have sufficient supplies of newly made switches, GM says.
GM says that until the car is fixed, drivers can minimize the chances of the switch moving out of position by detaching the ignition key from any key ring or other object, and using the key by itself.