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GM Recall a History of Inaction

Tina Robinson3 years ago

An in-depth look at the General Motors ignition switch recall recently published by the New York Times reveals a history of inaction by the automaker as fatal crashes continued to baffled engineers.

The First Fatal Crash

On July 29, 2005 the first of 13 fatal crashes linked to the ignition switch recall occurred in Maryland. Amber Christian, 16, died after crashing her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. Although she was legally drunk and speeding at the time of the accident, investigators determined the airbags in her Cobalt failed to deploy. That September, GM opened a file on the case, but it is unclear if any other departments were told or if any other action was taken.

Documents from GM show the automaker knew of problems with the ignition switches in 2004 when a driver inadvertently made contact with the key and shut off the engine. Other employees were able to replicate the problem during subsequent tests.

The defective ignition switches at the center of the recall are easily jostled out of the “run” position, resulting in engines suddenly losing power and other safety features such as airbags. The defect has been linked to at least 13 fatalities.

Engineers suggested a fix for the faulty switches in 2004, but executives decided against it, citing high costs and lead time. Again in 2005, a fix was proposed and this time approved but unexplainably canceled later. 

Finally in March of 2007 employees at GM began to look at why airbags were failing to open in some of the older Cobalts. An engineer was assigned by GM to track crashes in which airbags failed to deploy. Over the next seven years, the automaker would try and figure out the problem but varying circumstances surrounding the accidents made it difficult.

GM wouldn’t be able to explain the airbag non-deployment problem until it hired an outside engineering firm in 2013 to conduct an investigation. That investigation eventually suggested the ignition switches.

Red Flags Missed by GM

In the wake of the recall, now covering approximately 2.6 million vehicles, many are wondering how the automaker could have missed the “red flags.” By its own admission, GM knew of the problem for more than a decade but were either unwilling or unable to connect the dots.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also facing criticism for its lack of action in the matter. Twice NHTSA considered investigating the Cobalt crashes and both times opted not to. The safety agency said Thursday in a statement the data did not show enough of a trend for the agency to conduct an investigation.

GM Stays Silent

GM has issued two public apologies over the ignition switch recall but has been hesitant to say much more. While testifying before Congress last week, GM Chief Mary Barra repeatedly dodged questions saying the information would be made available after an internal probe was completed. GM has also largely avoided discussing the matter in interviews, instead offering only public statements.

The automaker is currently being investigated for its action – or lack thereof – in the ignition switch recall by the Senate and House as well as the Justice Department. Numerous lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of victims and their families.  

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