Justice Department studies GM's recall of compact cars

Word leaks of a criminal investigation and two congressional committees opening inquiries into a deadly defect on GM compact cars that is linked to 31 crashes and 13 deaths.
By TOM KRISHER, Associated Press Published: March 12, 2014
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— General Motors faced more pressure over its handling of a deadly defect in certain compact cars Tuesday as word leaked of a criminal investigation and two congressional committees opened inquiries into the matter.

The Justice Department is investigating whether GM broke any laws with its slow response to a problem with ignition switches in compact cars from model years 2003 to 2007, according to a person briefed on the matter. The probe is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the investigation has not been made public.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department and GM would not comment. The investigation was first reported by Bloomberg News.

13 deaths in 31 crashes

At issue is why GM waited until February to recall 1.6 million older-model compact cars worldwide, even though it admitted knowing about the problem for a decade. The faulty ignition switches have been linked to 31 crashes and 13 deaths. Committees in the House and Senate also want to know why the government’s road safety watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, didn’t take action sooner.

GM announced last month it will replace ignition switches that can shut off car motors unexpectedly. When that happens, drivers lose power-assisted steering and brakes and can lose control of the cars. The ignition can slip from the run position to accessory or off, due partly to heavy key chains dangling from the steering column.

Also, if the ignition switch isn’t in the run position, air bags may not inflate if a crash occurs.

An Associated Press review of a NHTSA database found that drivers started submitting complaints about the problem in early 2005, shortly after the first Chevrolet Cobalt went on sale. The review of complaints about the Cobalt, GM’s top-selling small car in the mid-2000s, found 173 instances of engine stalling or air bags failing to deploy, both symptoms of the ignition problem. Many drivers reported problems with keys sticking in the ignition in addition to the stalling.

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Q&A

GM executives, government agency regulators face many questions

— General Motors’ executives and government regulators will soon have to explain to Congress why it took years to recall 1.6 million compact cars with a known defect linked to 13 deaths. And the Justice Department is investigating whether GM broke any laws with its slow response, according to a person briefed on the matter.

Members of two congressional committees will likely ask why a proposed fix to the problem was never implemented and why GM didn’t immediately tell car owners about the defect. Here’s a look at the developments so far in the recall and what’s ahead.

Q: Which cars is GM recalling?

A: GM is recalling a total of 1.6 million vehicles that were sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The recall includes the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 from the 2005-2007 model years; the Saturn Ion from the 2003-2007 model years; and the Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky from the 2006-2007 model years.

Q: What’s the defect?

A: 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.

Q: What is GM doing to fix the problem?

A: Dealers will replace the ignition switches for free. GM will notify owners when the parts are available and repairs can begin, likely in April. Until then, it is warning owners to remove all items from their key rings, including key fobs if applicable. Only the vehicle key should be left on the ring.

Q: Did GM report these incidents to the government?

A: Yes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also received dozens of complaints from owners about the issue, dating as far back as 2005. NHTSA conducted several investigations into the problem but never ordered a recall.

Q: When did GM first know about this problem?

A: In 2004, around the time that the Chevrolet Cobalt first went on sale, GM learned of at least one engine losing power and started investigating the problem. By 2007, it had received more reports, including at least one involving a fatal accident. According to a company timeline that was given to NHTSA, the company approved a redesign of the key head in 2005 but later canceled that plan. The company also alerted dealers that an insert on the key head could fix the problem, but warranty records show only 474 customers have gotten the insert.

Q: Why didn’t GM act more quickly?

A: GM opened at least two investigations after reports of engine stalling but closed them after taking no action. At the time, the company was juggling eight U.S. brands and losing billions each year, which led to its eventual bankruptcy in 2009. Now, GM has cut excess brands and bureaucracy and is solidly profitable. GM’s new CEO has promised “an unvarnished” investigation into what happened.

Q: Why is Congress investigating?

A: Rep. Fred Upton, of Michigan, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote a 2000 law that was intended to improve communication between automakers and NHTSA and help NHTSA identify potential threats to consumers’ safety. He wants to know if GM or NHTSA missed opportunities to fix the problem sooner, or if the legislation needs to be strengthened.

Q: What’s at stake for GM?

A: It’s unclear how much the recall will cost. Toyota Motor Corp. paid $48.8 million in total fines to the U.S. government for its handling of unintended acceleration recalls. It later paid more than $1 billion to settle a lawsuit from owners claiming their cars lost value. It still faces other lawsuits.

Q: Where can I get more information?

A: Owners may contact Chevrolet at (800) 222-1020, Pontiac at (800) 762-2737 or Saturn at (800) 553-6000. They also may contact NHTSA at (888) 327-4236, TTY (800) 424-9153 or go to www.safercar.gov.

It’s the old GM haunting the new GM. They have a lot of the old products still hanging around.”

Jake Fisher,
Director of auto testing at

Consumer Reports magazine

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