NHTSA’s Failure to “Connect the Dots” Delayed Investigation into Faulty Cobalt Ignition Switches

An Associated Press review of NHTSA documents, the agency received 164 consumer complaints over a nine year period, alleging their 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts stalled without warning.  The NHTSA responded by stated that it did not have enough information to launch a safety investigation.  However, in 2010 it did open an investigation of Toyota Corollas of the same model years based on a smaller number of complaints about engine stalls.  Furthermore, according to General Motors Company, engine stalls were among the symptoms it used to identify faulty ignition switches that prompted it to recall 1.6 million Cobalts, Saturn Ions, Chevrolet HHRs and Pontiac G5s earlier this month.

GM acknowledges that the faulty ignition switches have been responsible for at least 12 deaths and dozens of accidents. According to the company the faulty switches can be inadvertently jostled from the “run” position into the “accessory” position, causing engine stalls and disabling a vehicle’s power steering, power-assisted braking system and air bags.

GM says it first became aware of the problem a decade ago, and the NHTSA received its first consumer complaint related to the faulty switches shortly after the Cobalt first went on sale in 2005.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have summoned GM and NHTSA officials to testify concerning their delay in notifying consumers of the potential defective ignition switches.

Although only 0.02 percent of model years 2005 – 2007 Cobalt owners filed complaints, industry experts say that number is sufficient to warrant an investigation by the NHTSA.   Some industry insiders say the ignition switch problem may have been overshadowed by the myriad other problems with the Cobalt, including defects in the vehicle’s power steering and fuel systems.  Complaints about unexpected stalls also began to increase at the same time the agency was embroiled in the high profile investigation into unintended acceleration by some Toyota vehicles, which may have resulted in a lack of resources needed to conduct concurrent probes.

Still, many feel the agency was negligent in its failure to press GM to launch a recall in a timelier manner.

Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Clarence Ditlow says, “They’re not connecting up the dots. That’s the generous explanation. The not-so-generous is that they did connect the dots but they just didn’t do anything.”

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