General Motors logoIn a Sunday article in The New York Times Business Day, Christopher Jensen quotes the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety as saying that regulators’ failure to open a broader investigation into General Motors cars following two fatal crashes related to defective car parts was “a complete failure of the system.” The executive director, Clarence Ditlow, said GM got away with the defects because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never opened an investigation, Jensen writes.

Now, nine years after the first of those fatal crashes — involving a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt in which an airbag failed — GM has recalled almost 1.4 million cars in the U.S., saying the ignition switch can shut off a car’s engine and electrical system and disable the airbags, Jensen writes. GM recalled 619,000 cars on Feb. 13, including Cobalts from the 2005-2007 model years and 2007 Pontiac G5 models, as Jensen wrote in an earlier article. Then on Feb. 25, GM recalled Saturn Ions from the 2003-2007 model years, Chevrolet HHRs from the 2006-2007 model years and 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models.

As Charles Murray writes for Design News, the ignition switch problems are believed to have caused 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths. In a press release, GM North American President Alan Batey said, “The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been.”

Murray adds that the ignition switch problem involved its torque performance, namely that it would too easily pop out of its “run” position and move to an off position, thus shutting off the ignition and disabling the airbags. It did not take much for the switch to dislodge, a problem that could be created by a heavy key chain or the car hitting a pothole, Murray writes.

Federal regulations require a car maker to notify NHTSA within five business days once a company knows the cause of a safety problem, Murray writes, with penalties as high as $35 million if they fail to do so. According to documents filed with NHTSA, GM says it became aware of the issues as early as 2004. Company engineers at one point came up with a fix, “a key insert that would prevent the driver’s key ring from moving around and possibly shutting down the engine.” GM did not explain how an “out-of-spec” switch ended up in the car to begin with, Murray writes.

Calling the recalls a major embarrassment for GM, Jensen writes that the company has been sued and is now facing an investigation by the safety agency and possibly a criminal investigation. The recall is also an embarrassment for safety regulators, Jensen writes. He quotes Michael Brownlee, a former associate administrator for enforcement at NHTSA, as saying the agency conducted a “lackluster pursuit of a lethal defect.”

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