GM recalls air bags that don't deploy when you have too many keys

Move affects 1.7 million Chevrolet Cobalts, HHRs, Saturn Ions, Skys, Pontiac Solstices, G5s, and Pursuits

Last updated: February 26, 2014 05:00 PM

2005 Chevrolet Cobalt

It’s a bad day when you’re driving along, and your engine suddenly shuts off. But that’s one of the least of the worries for owners of a group of 1.7 million cars in North America that General Motors recalled this week for a faulty ignition switch.

The biggest problem is that the ignition switch can be accidentally turned off in the event of a crash, disabling the air bags. That scenario has led to 12 deaths in 31 accidents. (Read: "GM recall raises concerns about warning systems for auto safety.")

The cars affected in North America include 1.7 million 2005 to 2007 Chevrolet Cobalts (and their equivalents, the Pontiac G5 and Canadian Pontiac Pursuit), 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRsPontiac Solstices and Saturn Skys, and the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion.

GM issued a technical service bulletin on the cars in 2005. That should have alerted dealers to fix the problem. But consumers aren’t directly informed about technical service bulletins, and when dealers recommend those repairs, consumers are usually asked to pay for them. That differs from a safety recall, which a manufacturer must perform free on every car according to federal law, and must notify all owners directly.

The ignition switch problem is certainly a safety issue. GM says the ignition switch doesn’t adhere to the company’s torque specifications for the force required to hold it in position. The problem is caused by heavy key rings or by jarring driving on or off-road––such as an accident. “Ensuring our customers’ safety is our first order of business,” said Alan Batey, president of GM North America. “We are deeply sorry and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can.”


Chevrolet Cobalt keys

The longtime safety advocate Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said: “General Motors made a terrible mistake when it failed to recall these vehicles in 2006 when it knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it. At least 13 people have died as a result of air bags failing to deploy in the cars covered by the expanded recall.” GM could also face criminal penalties under the Safety Act and civil fines of up to $35 million, he says.

GM's spokesman Alan Adler says the company did not see the problem as a safety issue at the time. A chronology of GM’s efforts to discover the problem, sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shows that the company discussed the issue with NHTSA officials in 2007, but did not link the problem to air bag failures. Adler also says the company found a very low rate of such failures of less than 1 in 2,000 cars.

In parsing complaints related to the issue in the NHTSA complaints database, Consumer Reports found that 2005 to 2007 model-year Cobalts had 13 times the rate of complaints for ignition-switch problems, engine stalling, power steering and power brake failures as its closest competitors.

Ditlow says the the government agency also should have ordered a recall in 2005 when GM did not. “NHTSA simply dropped the ball,” he said.

An e-mailed statement from NHTSA reads: “NHTSA is reviewing GM’s updated recall documents and is in communication with the manufacturer regarding its notification to the Agency including the timeliness of GM’s identification of the vehicle safety defect. NHTSA will monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues and will take appropriate action as warranted.” An NHTSA spokesman added, “As agency is in the process of working on this matter, there is no more comment we can make at this time.”

Adler says owners will get an initial letter from GM in early April notifying them of the recall and recommending that they remove any key fobs or other items from their key chains and use only the car key in the ignition. Later, once the company has lined up parts supplies to repair all the cars, another letter will go out to instruct owners to have the repairs done.

Find recalls for your vehicle.

Eric Evarts


At the time of publication, the official death toll was 13. This figure has since been revised to 12, and the story has been updated.  

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