GM under fire for car ignition safety

Automaker faces congressional committee; Consumer Reports calls for greater action

Published: April 01, 2014 12:30 PM

Chevrolet Cobalt key

General Motors continues to come under fire for its handling of a large-scale ignition switch recall. Published reports have shown that faulty switches were known to be in production for years, with a discrete correction made without changing the part number, as is common practice. Now, the automaker is facing tough questions by lawmakers and a call to action from consumer advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

These issues and more are under scrutiny today as GM's CEO, Mary Barra, faces a House committee in Washington, D.C., to be followed by further inquiry by the Senate on Wednesday. Among the concerns is how the situation affecting about 2.5 million cars was able to elude internal quality assessments and government investigation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's head, David Friedman, is also to testify.

In North America, GM had originally recalled 1.7 million cars, including 2005 to 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt (and their equivalents, the Pontiac G5 and Canadian Pontiac Pursuit), 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRPontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, and the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion. The ignition switch can be accidentally turned off prior to or in the event of a crash, disabling the air bags. That scenario has been linked to 13 deaths in 31 accidents. (For comparison, many other recalls have been initiated after a single death, or even just the risk of death.)

Because, by its own admission, GM cannot identify when faulty switches were used to repair models in question, the automaker has expanded the recall to include 824,000 more cars in the United States to ensure they have the properly operating ignition switch.

“We are taking no chances with safety,” said GM CEO Mary Barra in a released statement. “Trying to locate several thousand switches in a population of 2.2 million vehicles and distributed to thousands of retailers isn’t practical. Out of an abundance of caution, we are recalling the rest of the model years.”

The recall now includes the 2008-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2008-2011 Chevrolet HHR, 2008-2010 Pontiac Solstice, 2008-2010 Pontiac G5, and 2008-2010 Saturn Sky. Owners are expected to be notified during the week of April 21 to schedule a time for the free repair work.

Until the work is performed, owners are cautioned to not use a large keychain whose weight may cause the ignition to rotate from Run to Accessory in some situations.

Consumers Union has joined Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, and other safety organizations in calling for GM to establish a trust fund "to cover losses of victims and families of safety defects whose claims have been extinguished by the bankruptcy or barred by statutes of repose or limitations."

The letter signed by Consumers Union and released today to Barra includes: "We now know that GM failed to disclose information about the massive ignition defect while negotiating for its immunity, including settling cases confidentially so no one would learn of GM’s responsibility for causing these fatal crashes. The company now has had 16 consecutive profitable quarters, with a $3.8 billion profit in 2013. GM can well afford to help its victims and it has a moral obligation to do so." 

GM has recently stated it is “focused on ensuring the safety and peace of mind of our customers involved in the recall.”  If that is true, we want to see GM establish a generous trust fund to help its victims.

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