Could GM’s Potentially Fatal Ignition Issue Have Been Fixed Seven Years Ago?

nhtsagrabGeneral Motors recently recalled nearly 800,000 vehicles over concerns about possible ignition switch failures; a defect that may have resulted in multiple deaths. But a recently discovered report shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was informed about the possibility of a problem back in 2007.

The New York Times has a copy of a crash report filed in 2007 by a NHTSA investigator tasked with looking into the cause of a crash that took the lives of two teenagers in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt.

In the accident, the Cobalt ran off the road and into a clump of trees. Both the driver’s and passenger’s seat airbags failed to deploy “as a result of the impact with the clump of trees, possibly due to the yielding nature of the tree impact or power loss due to movement of the ignition switch just prior to the impact,” explains the investigator in the report [PDF]. The passenger was killed in the accident and a second passenger in the back seat of the vehicle during the crash later died at the hospital.

The investigator’s hypothesis is in line with GM’s recent explanation for the mass recall, which stated that the use of heavy key rings could cause the cars to turn off and thus prevent airbags from deploying.

As part of the report, the investigator looked at information stored on the Cobalt’s Event Data Recorder (aka EDR or “black box”) that keeps track of the vehicle’s various systems while in operation.

When the investigator got to the time of the actual accident, the information on the EDR “indicated that the vehicle power mode status was recorded as ‘accessory,’” indicating that the ignition switch was not in the “on” position at the time of final impact. “It is possible the ignition switch could have been knocked to the ‘accessory’ position by the driver’s leg or knee at the time of the vault. This investigation revealed that inadvertent contact with the ignition switch or a keychain in the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt can in fact result in engine shut-down and loss of power.” (bolded for emphasis)

To back up this statement, the investigator cited and attached an existing GM service bulletin from 2005 titled, “Information on Inadvertent Turning of the Key Cylinder, Loss of Electrical System.”

“The bulletin indicates that there is a potential for the driver to inadvertently turn off the ignition due to low ignition key cylinder torque/effort,” reads the 2007 report. “The bulletin indicated this was more likely to occur if the driver is short and has a large and/or heavy key chain attached to the ignition key. The bulletin indicated the condition was documented to occur when a driver’s knee contacted a key chain while the vehicle was turning and the steering column was adjusted all the way down.”

Additionally, the investigator says that a search of the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation “revealed at least six complaints… relating to the engine shutting off and loss of power in Chevrolet Cobalts when the ignition switch or key chain was contacted by the driver.”

While the report cautiously admits that none of this is conclusive evidence that the keychain or some incidental contact with the ignition switch resulted in the airbags failing to deploy, a safety consultant who formerly worked as NHTSA’s senior enforcement lawyer tells the Times that the report “should have raised all kinds of red flags… It seems pretty poor that they didn’t put two and two together.”

For its part, NHTSA responds that “The special crash investigation report did not determine the cause for the air bag nondeployment or that the failure to deploy was the result of a vehicle design defect or noncompliance with federal motor vehicle regulations.”

Former NHTSA chief Joan Claybrook says that the purpose of crash investigations and reports isn’t to determine whether there is a defective part in a vehicle, but to provide information up the food chain so that others can digest the data and decide how to act.

Claybrook, who ran the agency in the late ’70s and early ’80s, says that a well-researched and detailed report like the one involving the Cobalt crash should have been a “gift” to NHTSA, but that it looks like this wealth of information “fell into a deep hole… It is outrageous that they did nothing.”