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GM issues rare public apology amid recall of 1.6 million cars

GM issues rare public apology amid recall of 1.6 million cars
A new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt is displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2003. The Cobalt is one of several GM models the company is recalling to fix an issue with the ignition switch that has caused some cars to accidentally shut off, leading to fatal crashes. (Nick UT / Associated Press)

In a rare public apology, General Motors acknowledged Tuesday that it may have reacted too slowly to a safety issue linked to 13 deaths.

The delayed response could potentially cost GM tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines the automaker neglected to inform regulators.

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The 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 airbags — 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's North America President Alan Batey said in a statement.

This public acknowledgment of an oversight is extremely rare for a 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 on February 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 Soltices, and 2006-2007 Saturn Sky models. These models join the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models that were recalled earlier. A total of 1,367,146 cars in the U.S. are now included in the recall.

According to documents submitted to NHTSA by GM, the automaker was aware of the defective ignition switches as early as 2004 and issued a service bulletin for its dealers in 2005.

In the bulletin, dealers were encouraged to tell affected customers — particularly those drivers who were short or had a large or heavy keychains — to remove all unnecessary items from the keychain to prevent the ignition from inadvertently turning off.

At the time, GM thought this was sufficient action, 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 seatbelt.

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. It's just that simple."

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