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Justice Department Investigating General Motors Actions on Ignition-Switch Defect

Mar 12, 2014

The Justice Department has begun a criminal investigation into General Motors’ ten-year failure to address a deadly ignition-switch safety problem before announcing a 1.6 million vehicle recall last month.

People briefed on the matter say the inquiry by federal prosecutors in New York is focused on whether GM complied with laws requiring timely disclosure of vehicle safety problems. Prosecutors are questioning whether the automaker misled federal regulators about the extent of the problems, The New York Times reports.

The investigation is the latest in an expanding series of inquiries into GM’s handling of faulty ignition switches in the Chevrolet Cobalt sedan and other GM cars. The company acknowledges the problem is linked to 31 accidents and 13 deaths, according to the Times. In the affected cars, if the driver accidentally jostles the key, if the key ring is too heavy, or under certain road conditions, the ignition switch can move out of the “run” position shutting off the engine. With the engine off, the electrical system is off, the steering wheel can lock, and the air bags are disabled and will not deploy in a crash. Clarence Ditlow, who heads the watchdog group Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said, “It’s high time for the Justice Department to conduct criminal investigations of automakers who conceal defects and people die.”

The Times reports that both branches of Congress are investigating GM. A House committee will hold hearings into events leading to the 1.6 million-vehicle recall. The committee has demanded extensive records from the company and from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). On Tuesday, Senator Jay Rockefeller asked for hearings by a Senate panel that oversees consumer product safety.

Though GM was aware of the ignition switch problem as early as 2004, it did not act to correct it. In 2005, a GM engineer proposed a fix, but it was canceled, and instead, the company issued a service bulletin to dealers advising that car owners remove all items from their key chains except the car key.

NHTSA wants GM to identify the executives who decided against the proposed 2005 fix and to explain why the initial recall was for 778,000 cars before it expanded to 1.6 million. A New York Times analysis found that over the last 11 years NHTSA received more than 260 complaints about cars suddenly shutting off while being driven but it never started a broader investigation. Last week, Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO, promised an “unvarnished report” of GM’s failure to correct the ignition problems, the Times reports. Barra did not say when the company’s investigation would be completed.

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