Memo Reveals Federal Regulators Knew About GM Ignition Switch Flaw But Did Not Act

On Sunday, a House subcommittee released a memo that reveals the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided not to open an inquiry into the ignition switch problem in a number of General Motors cars although their 2007 investigation showed four fatal crashes possibly linked to the problem and more than three dozen other complaints.

The faulty ignition switch, used in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions, and other GM models, if bumped or jostled, can move out of the “run” position, shutting off the car’s engine and disabling the air bags. Despite mounting reports of engine shut-offs and air bags not deploying, NHTSA decided again in 2010 not to investigate. In addition, the memo revealed that GM approved the faulty switch design in 2002 even though Delphi, the manufacturer, warned that the switch did not meet specifications, The New York Times reports.

Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement, “The problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots.” In preparation for Tuesday’s hearing, the House committee gathered more than 200,000 pages of documents from GM and 6,000 pages from NHTSA, according to the Times. Mary T. Barra, GM’s chief executive, and David Friedman, acting NHTSA administrator, are scheduled to testify before the House committee on Tuesday and on Wednesday before a Senate panel. Because neither Ms. Barra nor Mr. Friedman held their current jobs during most of the period in question, their testimony might not establish how the critical decisions were made.

Both GM and NHTSA are accused of ignoring or dismissing warnings about the faulty ignition switch for more than a decade. Beginning last month, GM has recalled nearly 2.6 million cars and has acknowledged that 13 deaths are linked to the defect. The recall stood at about 1.6 million cars until Friday, when it was expanded to cover vehicles that might have been repaired with defective switches, the Times reports.

Though NHTSA has said over the years that it did not have enough evidence to warrant an investigation, the Times says the agency has investigated other safety issues on far less information, as for example, a 2012 probe of a possible Hyundai air bag problem after just one injury report. That investigation resulted in the recall of 190,000 vehicles.

Earlier this month, the Times published an analysis showing that since 2003 NHTSA had received more than 260 consumer complaints about sudden shutdowns, but never opened a broader investigation.



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