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."
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, saying its process to examine the problem was not robust enough when it surfaced about a decade ago.
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, 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.
"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."
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). Most of the cars were sold in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
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.
Margie Beskau, of Woodville, Wis., whose teenage daughter, Amy Rademaker, died in an October, 2006, crash involving a Chevy Cobalt, said she was relieved that GM agreed to the recall. The move finally gave her family answers about what happened in the crash that killed Rademaker, 15, and her friend, Natasha Weigel, 18.
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