According to the New York Times, nearly nine years after the death of young girl, General Motors has recalled nearly 1.4 million cars in the United States, including Cobalts, saying that the ignition switch can shut off a car’s engine and electrical system, and disable its air bags. Amber Rose’s death was the first of 13 linked to the problem, and was an early warning in what would become a decade-long failure by G.M. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to address a problem that engineers and regulators had been alerted to years ago.
The G.M. recall, which started on Feb. 13 with 619,000 cars in the United States before more than doubling last week, also poses the first big test for Mary T. Barra, G.M.’s new chief executive, who has promised a relentless focus on consumers. Ms. Barra, a career G.M. employee who the automaker said was not involved in the Cobalt’s development, has made no statements about the recall and was not available for an interview on Sunday, said Greg Martin, a G.M. spokesman. Additionally, G.M. has not made anyone available to answer questions about the recall, offering only public statements and what it has filed with regulators.
The recall is also an embarrassment for federal safety regulators. After two of the Cobalt crashes, the regulators took a close look at the cause, each time raising the possibility of a defect. They also met with G.M. about the issue. But despite the red flags, they never opened a broader investigation into whether the car was defective. “It was a complete failure of the system,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “They got away with it because N.H.T.S.A. never opened an investigation.”
While Amber’s death was apparently the first related to the defect, General Motors knew it had a problem in 2004 soon after the Cobalt replaced the Cavalier.
Promoted as part of a new culture at General Motors, the Cobalt was meant to show that G.M. was no longer cutting corners and was capable of making competitive small cars.
Lori Queen was in charge of G.M.’s small cars at the time the Cobalt was introduced. She retired in 2009 and in a telephone interview on Saturday declined to discuss the situation. “I can’t tell you that I recall any of that,” Ms. Queen said. “I just don’t know the details.” But shortly after Cobalts began leaving the assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, the automaker learned of a problem with the ignition system, according to a chronology that G.M. provided to safety regulators last week. There was “at least one incident” in 2004 in which the engine was shut off after the driver “inadvertently contacted the key or steering column,” according to the chronology. It wasn’t a fluke. The automaker said other employees were “able to replicate this phenomenon during test drives.” Before the end of the year, engineers concluded a defect in the ignition meant that the key could be jostled out of the “run” position if the driver’s leg hit it or if the key ring was too heavy, turning off the engine.
In 2004, G.M. engineers suggested a fix, but executives decided against it, citing “consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness.” G.M. cited the same problem in last month’s recalls. In 2005, the automaker continued to receive reports of engines being accidentally shut off. There was another idea for a fix. “The proposal was initially approved, but later canceled,” G.M. said in its chronology, without additional explanation. Instead, the automaker sent dealers a technical service bulletin. Its recommendation: Advise owners to remove “unessential items from their key chain.” In September 2005, G.M. learned about Amber’s death. The automaker’s legal staff opened a file on the case, but it is not clear whether any engineers were told.
It was not until March 2007 that the crash was brought to the attention of other G.M. employees at a meeting with safety regulators to discuss restraint systems like air bags. Regulators took an in-depth look at Amber’s crash and found that the engine was off at the time of impact. “The G.M. employees meeting with N.H.T.S.A. on this occasion were not aware of the crash,” the G.M. chronology said. After the meeting, however, G.M. assigned an engineer to track Cobalt crashes in which the air bags did not deploy “in order to try to identify common characteristics of these crashes.”
But G.M. says that for almost seven more years, it struggled to understand the problem, adding that the varying nature of the crashes made them difficult to understand. “These crashes occurred off-road and at high speeds, where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high regardless of air bag deployment,” G.M. said in a statement on Feb. 13. “In addition, failure to wear seatbelts and alcohol use were factors in some of these cases.”
But safety advocates say that even in severe crashes, functional air bags can prevent death and reduce injuries. “The point is, did their system work as it should have been expected to work?” said Louis V. Lombardo, who worked at N.H.T.S.A. for 27 years. It wasn’t until last year that G.M. hired an outside engineering firm, which pointed to the ignition problem cited in the 2005 service bulletin sent to dealers. This January, G.M. executives concluded a recall was necessary.
Mr. Ditlow, of the Center for Auto Safety, said that G.M. should have recalled the vehicles no later than 2007. In addition to the 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalts, the recalls eventually included the 2003-7 Saturn Ions; the 2006-7 Chevrolet HHRs and Pontiac Solstices; and the 2007 Saturn Skys and Pontiac G5s. Even G.M. seems to have trouble mustering a vigorous defense, offering a second apology last Tuesday.
“The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been,” Alan Batey, G.M.’s North America president, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are deeply sorry and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can.” Safety regulators are also skeptical and are investigating whether General Motors should have acted more quickly. Once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it must – within five business days – inform the safety agency of its plan for a recall or face a civil fine. The maximum fine is $35 million. General Motors could also face more serious problems. The United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York has been conducting a criminal investigation of Toyota over the way the automaker disclosed complaints stemming from the sudden acceleration of its vehicles. Millions of Toyotas were recalled in 2009 and 2010, resulting in more than a billion dollars in fines and settlements. It also faces private lawsuits.
General Motors has declined to say how many lawsuits have been filed against the company over the ignition-air bag problem. However, the automaker’s chronology says that “throughout this period G.M. was involved in claims and lawsuits in which allegations were made regarding the ignition switch issue that is the subject of the recall.” While the N.H.T.S.A. is investigating General Motors, some consumer advocates say that similar scrutiny should be focused on the agency itself. It conducted a “lackluster pursuit of a lethal defect,” said Michael Brownlee, a former associate administrator for enforcement at N.H.T.S.A., who retired in 1997. Mr. Brownlee said that G.M.’s 2005 technical service bulletins to dealers “should have resulted in a priority investigation.”
It is also not clear why in March 2007 – after safety officials told G.M. employees about Amber’s crash – the agency did not start a formal investigation into the problem. Then, about a month later, the agency got the results of another inquiry into a crash in Wisconsin involving three teenagers. The driver was badly injured and Amy Rademaker, 15, and Natasha Weigel, 18, were killed. (The families of the dead girls have retained a Texas law firm and are considering a lawsuit.) The investigator in that crash said the engine was off, and he raised the possibility that it had prevented the air bags from deploying.
He also noted the 2005 service bulletin G.M. sent to dealers warned them that it was possible for a driver to accidentally turn off the ignition, raising the possibility of a link. And he reported that N.H.T.S.A.’s website had “at least” six complaints from Cobalt owners saying they had accidentally turned off their engines. Such a report “should have raised all kinds of red flags,” said Allan Kam, a safety consultant in Bethesda, Md., who worked for the agency for more than 25 years and retired as its senior enforcement lawyer.
In a statement on Thursday, the agency said that it never opened an investigation into the Cobalts because “the data available to N.H.T.S.A. at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation.” Now, seven years after Margie Beskau’s daughter, Amy Rademaker, died in the Wisconsin crash, Ms. Beskau says she can’t believe it took so long for a recall. “It makes me very angry – they didn’t do their jobs,” she said. “I am surprised that it wasn’t investigated and also surprised that G.M. would allow faulty cars out on the road. They knew there was a problem, and they didn’t do anything about it.”