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GM recall raises concerns about warning systems for auto safety

The automaker has linked 13 deaths to a defective ignition switch

Published: March 2014
This 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt was involved in a fatal accident; its air bag did not deploy.
Photo: NHTSA

General Motors has recalled 1.6 million vehicles because of a faulty ignition switch (PDF). GM said a heavy key ring or a “jarring event,” such as running off the road, could cause the ignition to slip out of position, shutting off the power and causing the air bags to fail in a crash. GM has linked 13 deaths to the defective switch. A recent review of federal crash data (PDF) commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety identified 303 deaths in GM cars with undeployed airbags.

This recall has cast a spotlight on serious, chronic failures in identifying safety defects in the vehicles we drive. Further, it has exposed another example of delayed manufacturer response and reporting known problems that result in deaths and injuries to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has joined with a coalition of public-interest organizations in calling on Congress (PDF) to investigate the actions that could have contributed to this tragedy. Hearings are expected in the coming weeks.

Crash investigations by NHTSA, government inquiries, and media reports indicate that GM might have effectively ignored the problem for nearly a decade and failed to correct it.

Visit our car safety guide to learn about he latest developments in vehicle and driving safety.

This serious situation reinforces our long-held position that there need to be improvements in the way safety data is collected and shared, which will eliminate barriers that limit public access to information on safety investigations. Further, we advocate for increased penalties for corporate wrongdoing to incentivize rapid, appropriate response to protect consumers.

We also believe there is an urgent need for Congress to make sure NHTSA has the operating budget necessary to address safety defects and the future challenges facing the agency. Habitual delays in issuing critical safety rules need to be examined, particularly to see if inadequate staff and resources are the cause of the problem.

After several years of decline, highway deaths and injuries are on the rise again. We need to ensure that the federal agency responsible for the safety of Americans in motor vehicles has the legal and financial tools it needs to carry out its mission.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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