Citing 13 Fatalities, GM Expands Ignition Switch Recall To 1.37 Million Vehicles

When General Motors announced its recall of hundreds of thousands of Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles for concerns about the ignition switch, it said the defect was tied to as many as six fatalities. Now the car company says the recall is significantly larger than originally believed and that a total of 13 people may have died as a result of the defect.

On Tuesday, General Motors expanded the three-week-old recall to include the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, CNN Money reports.

Initially, General Motors recalled 778,000 compact cars after reports of five frontal impact crashes and six fatalities related to ignition switch failure in the 2005 to 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007 Pontiac G5s. Now, the company reports there have been 13 fatalities as a result of 31 frontal crashes associated with the problem.

The recall warns that vehicle’s ignition switch may fail by switching out of the run position if a key rink is carrying added weight, the vehicle goes off-road or experiences some other jarring event, GM reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The expanded recall comes less than a week after General Motors and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were criticized for not acting quickly enough to resolve the issue, even though several fatalities were reported.

A Georgia attorney, who is suing the car company on behalf of a woman who died while driving a 2005 Cobalt, has petitioned NHTSA to fine GM for not addressing the issue as soon as it knew of the problem, CNN Money reports.

According to a deposition provided by the Georgia attorney, a GM engineer experienced the problem while test-driving one of the vehicles in 2004.

Automakers are required to report safety defects to NHTSA within five days of discovering them. Failure to do so carries a maximum fine of $35 million.

On Monday, General Motors filed a chronology of events confirming the company knew of a potential ignition problem as early as 2004.

According to the chronology, the company issued service bulletins in 2005 and 2006 telling dealers how to fix the problem with a key insert, and advising dealers to tell customers not to dangle too many items from key chains. Records provided by the company show only 474 vehicles received key inserts.

The chronology shows the company was told of at least one fatal crash in March 2007. By the end of that year, the company knew of 10 cases in which Cobalts were involved in front-end crashes and the airbags did not deploy.

A 2007 NHTSA investigator’s report [PDF] shows both the agency and GM were aware of the possibility of ignition failure.

At the time, a NHTSA investigator was tasked with looking into the cause of a crash that took the lives of two teenagers in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt. The investigator’s report included the possibility that the driver’s and passenger’s seat airbags did not deploy as a result of “power loss due to movement of the ignition switch prior to impact”.

When the investigator looked at the vehicle’s Event Data Recorder, which keeps track of the vehicle’s various systems while in operation, it was found that the ignition switch was not in the ‘on’ position at the actual time of the accident. The investigation reveled that inadvertent contact with the ignition switch or a keychain could result in engine shut-down and loss of power.

Following the release of the report last week, NHTSA officials said the special crash investigation did not determine a cause for the airbag non deployment or that the failure to deploy was a result of a vehicle design defect or noncompliance with federal motor vehicle regulations.

Still, consumer advocates say more could have been done about the issue.

“They knew by 2007 they had 10 incidents where the air bag didn’t deploy in this type of crash,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Auto Safety, tells CBS News. “This is a case where both GM and NHTSA should be held accountable for doing a recall no later than the spring of 2007,”

Officials with General Motors maintain the company handled the recall accordingly.

“The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been,” General Motors president Alan Batey said in a company statement. “Today’s GM is committed to doing business differently and better. We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward.”

GM expands recall, cites 13 deaths [CNN Money]
GM adds 842,000 vehicles to recall linked to fatal crashes [CBS News]