Feds order GM to explain faulty ignition recall delay

3:20 PM, Mar 5, 2014   |    comments
A 2005 Chevy Cobalt
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(USA TODAY) -- Federal safety officials today ordered General Motors to provide specific information on why it took so long for it to recall 1.37 million cars in the U.S. for a faulty ignition switch that could shut off the engine and disable safety systems.

The "Special Order" lists 107 specific questions that National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants answered by April 3, starting with why the automaker didn't fix the switches in 2004 when it first noticed a problem.

GM has linked the faulty switches, and their failure to provide power to front airbags, to 31 crashes and 13 deaths.

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The questions are the next step in NHTSA's "timeliness" investigation of the recall. Federal rules give automakers five business days to report a safety defect to the agency or face up to a $35 million fine, as well as a possible criminal investigation.

GM engineers first noted the ignition switch problem in 2004, about when the then-new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt compact hit the market.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a document sent to GM today wonders what prevented GM from notifying NHTSA much sooner when it discovered some ignition keys could slip from "run" into "accessory," shutting off the engine and killing power to safety systems, including air bags.

GM had maintained before the recall that the cars involved were safe because they can be steered and stopped, even when the key slips out of "run," turns off the engine and eliminates power assist to the steering and brakes and disables some safety systems. GM also has noted that in many of the crashes now linked to the problem that lack of seatbelt use and alcohol were factors.

Beyond the initial noting of the problem in 2004, GM in 2005 got other reports of the problem, and in 2006 a crash in Wisconsin resulted in the deaths of two teenage girls after the driver, who survived, veered off the road at 71 mph, flew across a driveway and slammed into trees in a Chevy Cobalt. According to the car's "black box" data recorder, the ignition switch was in "accessory" instead of "run," and the front airbags didn't deploy.

A crash-investigation "swat team" commissioned by NHTSA probed the crash and told the government the switch and the airbags didn't work, and noted several complaints in NHTSA's own database about similar, if less violet, incidents.

Recalled in the U.S.: 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. Dealers will replace the igniton switches on those models next month, once they have sufficient supplies of newly made switches, GM says.

GM says drivers can minimize problems with the ignition switch by detaching the ignition key from any keying or other object, and using the key by itself.

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