US safety agency to probe speed of GM recall

Associated Press
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008, file photo, the Chevy Cobalt moves on the assembly line at the Lordstown Assembly Plant Thursday Aug. 21, 2008. in Lordstown, Ohio. The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog likely is looking into whether General Motors was slow to report problems that led to a massive small-car recall and 13 deaths. Photo/Ron Schwane, File)
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FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008, file photo, the Chevy Cobalt moves on the assembly line at the Lordstown Assembly Plant Thursday Aug. 21, 2008. in Lordstown, Ohio. The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog likely is looking into whether General Motors was slow to report problems that led to a massive small-car recall and 13 deaths. Photo/Ron Schwane, File)

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. government's auto safety watchdog is investigating whether General Motors acted quickly enough to recall 1.6 million older-model small cars in a case linked to 13 deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday night that it opened the probe "to determine whether GM properly followed the legal processes and requirements for reporting recalls."

Most of the cars were sold in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The agency has the authority to fine GM as much as $35 million under legislation that went into effect late last year. The previous maximum fine automakers faced per incident was $17.35 million. Automakers must report evidence of safety defects within five days of discovering it.

On Tuesday, GM doubled the number of cars in the recall for faulty ignition switches. The problem has been linked to 31 front-end crashes that caused the 13 deaths. The company also issued a rare apology.

"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement Tuesday. "Today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better."

A chronology of events filed Monday with NHTSA by GM show it knew of the problem as early as 2004.

Since undergoing a painful bankruptcy in 2009, GM has removed layers of bureaucracy and improved the quality of its vehicles and is quicker to issue recalls when problems occur. However, the admission that its procedures were lacking 10 years ago shows how the old culture can still haunt the automaker.

On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Then on Tuesday, it doubled up, adding 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007).

GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position and shut off the engine and electrical power. That can knock out power-assisted brakes and steering and disable the front air bags. In the fatalities, the air bags did not inflate, but the engines did not shut off in all cases, GM said.

It was unclear whether the ignition switches caused the crashes, or whether people died because the air bags didn't inflate.

According GM's chronology, the company knew of the problem as early as 2004, and was told of at least one fatal crash in March of 2007. GM issued service bulletins in 2005 and 2006 telling dealers how to fix the problem with a key insert, and advising them to warn customers about overloading their key chains. The company's records showed that only 474 vehicle owners got the key inserts.

GM thought the service bulletin was sufficient because the car's steering and brakes were operable even after the engines lost power, according to the chronology.

GM has hired an outside law firm to find out what went wrong in the ignition recall.

GM also said Wednesday that it will send letters to all 1.6 million owners globally starting March 10 telling them to use only the key in the ignition until repairs are made. Another letter will go out in April telling people they can take their cars in for repairs.

If General Motors Co. is fined, it will be the third automaker to face significant penalties for being slow to report safety problems. From 2010 through 2012, Toyota Motor Corp. paid a series of fines totaling more than $66 million for delays in reporting unintended acceleration problems. Ford Motor Co. last year paid $17.35 million for being too slow to report sticky gas pedals in some Escape SUVs.

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AP Reporter Amy Forliti contributed to this report from Hammond, Wisconsin.

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