Timeline Shows GM & NHTSA Failed On Multiple Occasions To Prevent Deaths Tied To Ignition Switch Recall

In advance of Tuesday’s hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations regarding the ongoing recall of more than 2 million GM vehicles for ignition-related problems tied to at least 13 deaths, the Committee on Energy and Commerce has released a detailed timeline of events, including all the times at which the carmaker or regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could have alerted the public to the defect.

According to the report [PDF], there were multiple times that employees at either GM or NHTSA could have fixed the defect, but chose not to for one reason or another:

•2001 – 2002: As previously reported, internal GM documents show that it knew of a problem with the ignition in the 2003 Saturn Ion (one of the subsequently recalled vehicles) while the car was still in pre-production. Rather than halt production or stop using the defective ignition switches, GM continued to install them in the Ion and numerous other vehicles for several years.

•Nov. 2004 – Feb. 2005: As GM rolled out its 2005 Chevy Cobalt, it learned that “vehicle can be keyed off with knee while driving.” In early 2005, it opened an engineering inquiry into the issue. After deciding that the current switch was “very fragile,” and that it was “close to impossible to modify the present ignition switch,” the inquiry was closed with a decision of “no action.” The reasons given for the lack of action included a long lead time, high cost for repair, and that “[n]one of the solutions seems to fully countermeasure the possibility of the key being turned during driving.”

•May 2005: Because GM was being forced into buying back so many defective Cobalts, it opened another engineering inquiry only months after closing the first one. Engineers suggested a change to the key ring slot, but GM eventually decided against that tweak.

•July 2005: The driver of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt is killed in a crash in Maryland. A later Special Crash Investigation by NHTSA finds that the air bag did not deploy because the key had been turned to the “Accessory” setting.

•Dec. 2005: Rather than issue a recall for the known defect, which had resulted in numerous buy-backs, multiple complaints and at least one preventable death at this point, GM issues a Service Bulletin to dealers on the topic, advising them to tell drivers to remove heavy objects from keychains. The reason for the bulletin and not the recall? GM recently stated this was “the appropriate response to the reported incidents, given that the car’s steering and braking systems remained operational even after a loss of engine power, and the car’s engine could be restarted by shifting the car into either neutral or park.”

•April 2006: The GM engineer responsible for the ignition switch authorized Delphi, the manufacturer of the switch, to make changes in response to the complaints and accidents. The new parts would eventually show up starting with model year 2008 GM vehicles, but there was still no action taken to remedy the many cars on the road with the defective part. Additionally, the part number of the switch was never changed, which is why some newer GM vehicles may have inadvertently received faulty switches when having their cars repaired.

•Oct. 2006: Another driver of a 2005 Cobalt is killed in a crash. Once again, a NHTSA investigation determines that the air bags did not deploy, most likely because the key had been turned to “Accessory.”

• Sept. 2007 – Nov. 2007: The Chief of the Defects Assessment Division (DAD) within NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) emails other ODI officials to propose an investigation of “frontal airbag non-deployment in the 2003-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt/Saturn Ion.” At the time, GM maintained that it saw no problems with these cars.

The DAD chief made his presentation to an ODI panel — citing 29 Complaints, four fatal crashes,and 14 field reports — but the panel held there was no discernible trend and opted to not pursue a formal investigation.

• April 2009: The driver and passenger in a 2005 Cobalt were killed in a crash in Pennsylvania when their air bags fail to deploy. While a subsequent NHTSA investigation stated that the “cause of the air bag non-deployment in this severe crash could not be determined,” the report notes that once again the ignition was in the “Accessory” position.

•2010: NHTSA’s ODI panel again considers an investigation into the GM vehicles, but again concludes the data does not show any trend.

•2012 – 2013: GM conducts multiple tests on a wide range of vehicles and determines that the early Cobalts and Ions have ignition switches that do not meet the company’s minimal standards.

It is not until January of 2014, more than a dozen years after the problem was first detected and could have been stopped, that GM decides to recall approximately 1.6 million vehicles for a part that costs a few bucks and doesn’t take that long too replace.

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