In a rare public apology, General Motors acknowledged Tuesday that it reacted too slowly to a safety issue linked to 13 deaths.
The delayed response could cost GM tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines the automaker neglected to inform regulators. NHTSA is also facing criticism for not demanding that GM act more quickly to recall more than 1.6 million vehicles.
The recall is linked to the cars' ignition switches, which GM says can be accidentally turned from the "run" position to the "accessory" position while the car is being driven. When this happens, the engine shuts off and safety systems — including power steering, anti-lock brakes and air bags — are disabled.
This has led to at least 31 crashes and at least 13 front-seat fatalities in the U.S., GM said.
"We are deeply sorry and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can," GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement. "The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been."
This public acknowledgment of a safety oversight is extremely rare for an international corporation like GM.
"I haven't seen GM apologize since they apologized to Ralph Nader in 1966," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "It's a huge deal."
Tuesday's announcement came as GM said it is recalling an additional 748,000 cars in the U.S., on top of 619,000 that were recalled Feb. 13. The remaining vehicles affected are in Mexico and Canada.
The updated recall now includes 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstices and 2006-2007 Saturn Sky models. These models join the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models that were recalled earlier.
According to documents GM submitted to NHTSA, the automaker was aware of the defective ignition switches as early as 2004, and issued a service bulletin for its dealers in 2005.
GM encouraged dealers to tell affected customers to remove all unnecessary items from their key chains to prevent the ignition from inadvertently turning off.
At the time, the automaker thought that would be enough to address the issue because the cars' steering and braking systems remained operational even after the engine was accidentally shut off, according to the document.
It wasn't until 2007 that NHTSA brought a report of a fatal crash to GM's attention. In that crash, a 16-year-old Maryland girl was killed after she lost control of her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt and slammed into a tree.
The girl was not wearing a seat belt, and the air bags didn't deploy. Data pulled from the car's black box revealed that the key had been in the accessory mode at the time of the crash, thereby disabling the air bags.
GM then began to track similar crashes, and by the end of 2007 the automaker was aware of 10 such crashes. Black box data was available for nine of those, and the key was found to be in the accessory mode in four of the nine.
NHTSA should have demanded a recall at that time, Ditlow said.
"There really is no excuse for NHTSA not having told GM to do the recall in 2007," he said. "It's just that simple."
Part of the problem is the safety agency is woefully understaffed to keep watch on the auto industry.
"They can't put a cop on every block, they just don't have enough cops to go after these huge auto companies," Ditlow said. "It's all premised on trust."
Ditlow said he expects NHTSA to drop any threat of criminal action against GM in return for the automaker agreeing to pay the maximum civil penalties currently allowed, which is currently $35 million.
Such a decision could take several months for the agency to finalize. The safety agency said in a statement that it is "currently reviewing GM's updated recall documents and is in communication with the manufacturer regarding its notification to the agency including the timeliness of GM's identification of the vehicle safety defect."
In the meantime, NHTSA is urging owners of the affected GM cars to heed the automaker's recommendation to use only an ignition key, with no key ring or other keys attached.
Ford was the last automaker to be fined for failing to immediately alert regulators of a safety issue. Last year it paid NHTSA $17.4 million for delaying the recall of Escape sport utilities with gas pedals that could become stuck.
In 2009 and 2010, NHTSA fined Toyota Motor Corp. more than $65 million for violations of federal vehicle safety laws and for not recalling cars quickly in response to complaints about sudden acceleration.
GM was candid about its failure to respond urgently to a serious safety issue.
"Today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better," the company said in a statement. "We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward."
Ditlow was more succinct: "This is not a good day for GM."
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