Fatal Crashes and a Decade of Inaction Before GM Ignition-Defect Recall

After nearly a decade of investigating and more than a dozen fatal crashes, General Motors recently almost 1.4 million cars for a defective ignition switch that can accidentally shut off the car’s engine and electrical system, and disable the air bags.

The first fatal crash believed to be related to ignition switch killed 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose on July 29, 2005. The air bag in her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt did not deploy when the car crashed. But The New York Times reports that General Motors knew of “at least one incident” in 2004 in which the engine shut off after the driver “inadvertently contacted the key or steering column,” according to the chronology GM provided to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) this week.

Before the end of 2004, engineers concluded that a defect in the ignition would permit the key to move out of the “run” position if the driver accidentally jostled the key or the key ring was too heavy. With the engine off, the electrical system is also off and the air bags are disabled. Engineers proposed a fix, but company executives decided against it, citing time, cost, and effectiveness, according to the Times. Amid continuing reports of accidental engine shut-offs, GM rejected another fix in 2005. The automaker did issue a technical service bulletin to dealers, recommending that car owners remove “unessential items” from the key chain to lighten the weight.

GM employees learned of Amber’s fatal crash at a March 2007 meeting with safety regulators about restraint systems. Although GM then assigned an engineer to track Cobalt crashes in which the air bags did not deploy, the company took no action on the ignition defect and the investigation continued for almost seven more years. GM says some of the reported crashes involved high speed, alcohol, or failure to wear seat belts, but safety advocates counter that functioning air bags can prevent death and reduce injuries even in serious crashes, according to the Times.

In 2013 GM finally hired an outside engineering firm, which noted the ignition problem cited in the 2005 service bulletin. In January 2014, GM concluded a recall was necessary. The recall includes 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2003-7 Saturn Ions, 2006-7 Chevrolet HHRs and Pontiac Solstices, and the 2007 Saturn Skys and Pontiac G5s. Clarence Ditlow, of the Center for Auto Safety, said the recall should have occurred no later than 2007, according to the Times.

The Times describes the recall as an embarrassment for federal safety regulators as well. Even after NHTSA knew of two fatal Cobalt crashes, the agency never opened a broader investigation into whether the car was defective, in what Ditlow calls “a complete failure of the system.”



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