Alan Batey, president of General Motors North America, said Tuesday that the company’s nearly ten-year investigation of an ignition switch defect linked to 13 deaths, “was not as robust as it should have been.” About 1.4 million GM vehicles have now been recalled.
GM’s report attempts to explain to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) why it took so long to recall the vehicles, the New York Times reports. GM’s chronological account was posted on NHTSA’s web site. The report shows that starting in 2005 the automaker was aware of a problem that could cause the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt’s engine to be accidentally switched off. With the ignition in the off position, air bags would have been disabled, and the failure of air bags to deploy in a frontal crash could have caused injuries and deaths. Instead of recalling the vehicles, though, GM continued its investigation for years, saying it was having trouble finding the cause, according to the Times.
GM sent dealers a technical service bulletin in 2005 describing the problem and saying that it could be mitigated if drivers lightened their key chains by removing “unessential items.” But, according to federal regulations, once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it must inform NHTSA within five business days of its plan for a recall or face a civil fine.
On February 13, 2014, GM issued a recall for about 778,000 vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt from the 2005-7 model years and 2007 Pontiac G5 cars. The recall explained that if the vehicle was jarred or the keys jostled, the engine could be inadvertently turned off, preventing the air bags from deploying, the Times reports. G.M. expanded the recall on Tuesday to about 748,000 additional vehicles, including 2003-7 Saturn Ions, 2006-7 Chevrolet HHRs, and 2006-7 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models.
The automaker also acknowledged that it is aware of 13 deaths of front-seat occupants in crashes where the front air bags did not deploy. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, told the Times in a telephone interview that the report shows “with utter clarity there should have been a recall in 2006 or 2007.” Joan Claybrook, head of NHTSA from 1977-81, said NHTSA “ignored its duty to protect the public,” when it learned of the ignition problem in a 2007 investigation of a fatal crash in Wisconsin. Claybrook said in an email, “General Motors should be criminally prosecuted for covering up this safety defect, and N.H.T.S.A. should replace the staff that failed to do its job.”