The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation into why General Motors Co. did not promptly recall more than 1.6 million vehicles after it learned that faulty ignition switches were causing fatal crashes.
GM on Thursday issued its second apology for not moving faster to fix the problem, which is linked to 13 deaths in the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars.
Safety experts praised the start of the investigation, which could result in up to a fine of up to $35 million, but faulted NHTSA for not taking action earlier, when it found out about the problem.
“This is a total failure of the recall system,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “Both GM and NHTSA bear responsibility.”
Sean Kane, who heads Safety Research & Strategies Inc., agreed.
“It is pretty apparent that the NHTSA enforcement division let this one slip on multiple occasions,” Kane said.
After looking at the chronology of events behind the recalls this week, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said the safety agency should improve the system for automaker reporting of potential safety defects.
“We need to overhaul the Early Warning Reporting system so that NHTSA is not looking at auto defects through a rearview mirror,” said Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Making more information public can help prevent accidents and deadly crashes, and I look forward to hearing from NHTSA on this important matter.”
In a statement, NHTSA said it constantly monitors a variety of data. “When the agency finds a trend that indicates a vehicle may be an outlier, we take action. The data available to NHTSA at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation.”
The agency also said that its investigators will now “determine whether GM properly followed the legal processes and requirements for reporting recalls.”
Part of the problem is that NHTSA does not have a big enough budget to follow every lead, Ditlow said.
“NHTSA can’t put a cop on every block,” he said. “The system is built on trust that the manufacturer will do the right thing.”
GM recalled the vehicles in two phases this month, but documents filed with the federal safety agency demonstrate that the automaker first learned of the problem in 2004.
The recall covers the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Sky.
The ignition switches in the recalled vehicles can be inadvertently 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 the 13 deaths.
News of the investigation prompted a second apology from GM on Thursday.
“We deeply regret the events that led to the recall and this investigation,” the automaker said in a statement. “We intend to fully cooperate with NHTSA and we welcome the opportunity to help the agency have a full understanding of the facts. Today’s GM is committed to learning from the past while embracing the highest standards now and in the future.”
General Motors had acknowledged Tuesday that it reacted too slowly to the safety issue.
The automaker said the parts to fix the cars probably won’t be available until early April. It plans to notify vehicle owners about when they can make repair appointments at dealers.
Until then, both NHTSA and GM are urging drivers of the cars to use only the ignition key, with nothing else on the key ring, when driving the vehicle. Heavier key rings can make the ignition switch more likely to fail.
According to documents filed with the safety agency, GM knew 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.
An analysis by the Center for Auto Safety found that a NHTSA Special Crash Investigations team first encountered the problem in a crash that killed a 16-year-old in 2005. The agency sent an information request to GM about a year later. Another NHTSA team began investigating a similar crash that killed a teenage girl in Wisconsin in 2006.
That team discovered that GM had issued the service bulletin to its dealers detailing the problem, but not a recall.
A year later, 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 ignition switch had been in the accessory mode at the time of the crash, thereby disabling the air bags.
Still, GM issued no recall and NHTSA did not launch an investigation, Ditlow said.
GM then began to track similar crashes. By the end of 2007, the automaker was aware of 10 such crashes involving the ignition switch in accessory mode. Black box data were available for nine of those, and the key was found to be in the accessory mode in four of the nine. But the automaker didn’t issue its recall until this month.
“When you look at the chronology,” Ditlow said, “there is no explanation for why NHTSA did not open an investigation and get a recall back in 2007.”