GM, NHTSA Face Mounting Pressure over Delay in Faulty Ignition Switch Recall

According to The Center for Auto Safety, federal regulators are attributing 303 deaths to airbags that failed to deploy as the result of faulty ignition switches in the models recalled by General Motors last month.

Although GM acknowledges that it has been aware of the ignition switch problems since 2001, the automaker has reported only 12 deaths in 34 crashes involving the recalled models. Four of those fatalities involved 2004 Saturn Ions according to the NHTSA.  GM did not notify its dealers of the problem in 2005.

The defective ignition switches are susceptible to malfunctioning when jostled or bumped, causing vehicles to unexpectedly shut down, thereby disabling their airbag systems – sometimes while traveling at high speeds.

The Center for Auto Safety cited the NHTSA’s Fatal Analysis Reporting System in its report; however, GM claims the organization’s report included only raw data.  In a statement released last Thursday GM claimed, “Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions.”

The Center for Auto Safety’s executive director Clarence Ditlow says, “NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers.”

The NHTSA has received hundreds of complaints about the faulty switches over the past decade, including two reports of fatalities, but has not required GM to recall the suspect models.

Last Thursday Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said there will be an “aggressive investigation” of GM’s delay in reporting the ignition switch problems to federal investigators.

Last month GM announced the recall of 1.6 million 2007-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-2007 Saturn Ions to have their ignition switches replaced.

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have both indicated they will hold hearings on the NHTSA and GM’s handling of the matter, and the U.S. attorney in Manhattan has opened a criminal probe to determine whether the agency and automaker are guilty of criminal negligence.

GM is also being pressured to establish a $1 billion victim’s compensation fund.  Some would-be plaintiffs may be prohibited from suing the automaker under the terms of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy restructuring.

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