Federal Regulators Knew About GM Ignition Switch Flaw, Fatal Crashes But Did Not ActMar 31, 2014
A memo released by a House subcommittee on Sunday reveals that federal regulators decided not to open an inquiry into the ignition switch problem in Chevrolet Cobalts and other General Motors cars, although their own 2007 investigation showed four fatal crashes and more than three dozen other complaints about the problem.
The agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reached the same decision again in 2010, despite additional reports of air bags not deploying in crashes. The memo also revealed that GM approved the faulty switch design in 2002 even though the part’s maker, Delphi, warned that the switch did not meet specifications, according to The New York Times. There had been a warning in 2001 – when the Saturn Ion was being developed – but GM said, “a design change had solved the problem.” Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement, “The problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots.”
Details in the memo support the contention that both GM and NHTSA ignored or dismissed warnings about the faulty ignition switch for more than a decade. The switch, if bumped or jostled, can turn off, shutting off the engine and disabling the air bags. General Motors has recalled nearly 2.6 million cars and has acknowledged that 13 deaths are linked to the defect. The recall had included about 1.6 million cars until Friday, when it was expanded by nearly a million more, to cover vehicles that might have been repaired with defective switches.
A House subcommittee gathered more than 200,000 pages of documents from GM and 6,000 pages from NHTSA ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled hearing. Mary T. Barra, GM’s chief executive, and David Friedman, acting NHTSA administrator, are scheduled to testify before the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday, the Times reports.
On March 8, the Times published an analysis of crash data showing that NHTSA had received more than 260 complaints about potentially dangerous shutdowns involving Cobalts, Ions, and other cars in the recall. Investigators are looking into all reports of air bag failures in the recalled cars.
Though NHTSA has maintained that it did not have enough evidence to warrant a safety investigation of the GM cars, the Times says the agency has opened investigations on far less information. In 2012, for example, it investigated a possible Hyundai air bag problem after just one injury when an air bag deployed. That investigation resulted in the recall of 190,000 vehicles.
Neither Ms. Barra nor Mr. Friedman were in their current jobs during most of the period in question, so their testimony might not establish how the critical decisions were made, the Times notes.