Chevrolet Cobalts move along the line at the Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio. The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog agency is looking into whether General Motors was slow to report problems with ignition switches that led to a massive recall after 13 deaths and 31 crashes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun an investigation into why General Motors Co. did not promptly recall more than 1.6 million vehicles after it learned that faulty ignition switches were causing fatal crashes. The investigation is likely to result in hefty fines.
GM recalled the vehicles in two phases this month even though documents filed with the federal safety agency demonstrate that the automaker first learned of the problem in 2004. Investigators will “determine whether GM properly followed the legal processes and requirements for reporting recalls,” the agency said.
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007).
On Tuesday it added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). Most of the cars were sold in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
General Motors acknowledged Tuesday that it reacted too slowly to the safety issue, which is linked to 31 crashes and 13 deaths.
“The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been,” GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement Tuesday. “Today’s GM is committed to doing business differently and better.”
GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position and into the “accessory” position while the car is being driven. The engine shuts off and safety systems — including power steering, anti-lock brakes, and air bags — are disabled.
NHTSA and GM are urging drivers to “use only the ignition key with nothing else on the key ring” when operating the vehicle.
According to documents filed with the safety agency, GM knew of the defective ignition switches as early as 2004, and issued a service bulletin for its dealers in 2005. GM encouraged dealers to tell customers to remove all unnecessary items from their key chains.
The automaker thought that would address the issue because the cars’ steering and braking systems remained operational even after the engine was accidentally shut off.
But in 2007, NHTSA brought a report of a fatal crash to GM’s attention.
GM then began to track similar crashes, and by the end of 2007 the automaker was aware of 10 such crashes.
If General Motors is fined, it will be the third automaker to face significant penalties for being slow to report safety problems.
From 2010 through 2012, Toyota Motor Corp. paid a series of fines totaling more than $66 million for delays in reporting unintended acceleration problems.
Ford Motor Co. last year paid $17.35 million for being too slow to report sticky gas pedals in some Escape SUVs.