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April 16, 2014

Deadly Ignition Switch Leads to Massive GM Recall

Imagine you’re driving the speed limit on a busy highway when your car’s power is suddenly cut. You fight to stay in your lane as the road bends right. You are unable to apply the brakes. You cross the centre line of the highway barely avoiding a head-on collision with an oncoming car.

Now imagine the car company knew about the problem for over a decade – and could have fixed it for a mere $10.

This has happened and has led to a massive car recall by General Motors. The U.S. car giant is recalling 2.6 million vehicles with faulty ignition switches that can turn off mid-drive. When switched off, power steering and braking is limited and the airbag is disengaged.

Thirteen deaths and an unknown number of injuries have been linked to the problem to date.

The recall covers the following vehicle models:

  • Chevrolet Cobalt, 2005-2007
  • Chevrolet HHR, 2006-2007
  • Pontiac Pursuit, 2005-2006
  • Pontiac Solstice, 2006-2007
  • Pontiac G5, 2007
  • Saturn Ion, 2003-2007
  • Saturn Sky vehicles, 2007

The recall was first issued in February of this year. But new information suggests that GM has known about the ignition problem for over a decade.

The 10-year time lapse has prompted the U.S. federal government to take action. GM was recently put in front of Congress, and they are now facing a criminal investigation by the Attorney General’s Office. The Feds have asked that GM turn over thousands of related documents in the hopes that they uncover the full story leading up to the recall.

Automobile bloggers at Jalopnik have dug into the first 600 pages of documentation released by GM. A few of their “damning” revelations:

  • GM Engineer Gary Altman first encountered the problem in 2004 when he accidentally turned off the Cobalt he was driving by bumping the ignition switch with his knee. He later rejected a fix for the problem because the cost was “too high” and the time for repair “too long.” Altman is now one of two engineers currently suspended with pay as part of the federal investigation.
  • The Feds proposed an investigation in 2007 prompted by an unusual spike in airbag non-deployments in the Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion. GM denied problems with the airbags. But engineers with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) insisted that proper airbag deployment would have “reduced injury levels or saved lives.”  Years later, the NHTSA accused GM as being “slow to communicate” and “slow to act” compared with other car manufacturers.
  • It would have cost just $10 per part to replace the ignition switches on 2005-2007 Cobalts. And replacing the faulty switches on all cars (except the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice) would have cost about $81 million. Current recall costs are now expected to total $1.3 billion.

Fallout at GM includes the head of HR, Melissa Howell, and communications chief, Selim Bingol, leaving “to pursue other interests.”

As for the recall, the repair schedule remains unclear. GM says notification letters were sent out to car owners in March and replacement parts are supposed to be available this month. Owners are asked to schedule an appointment with their dealer to have the issue fixed.

Until repairs are made, GM warns drivers to remove all items from their key rings, leaving only the vehicle key. Key fobs should also be removed. GM assures drivers that ignition switches are safe if the key ring has no added weight from the extra keys and accessories.

Even with the new ignition switch in place, GM recommends that their customers only use the key, key ring, and key fob for the vehicle.

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