Thirteen motorists are dead, and federal safety regulators want to know why.

On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it would investigate why General Motors delayed a recall of more than 1.37 million vehicles when it knew a defect existed for as long as a decade. In the interim, faulty ignition switches that prevented airbag deployment have been linked to 13 fatalities and caused 31 known crashes.

NHTSA said it would investigate the timeliness of GM's recall, and the Detroit-based automaker could face a financial penalty if investigators find they stalled in fixing a deadly safety issue. Automotive safety advocates say NHTSA could have also investigated sooner.

"NHTSA's enforcement activities have been completely lax, and they let it slide and people died," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies. "And GM's shown a willingness to obfuscate what was really happening."
Alan Batey, General Motors executive

"... the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been" - Alan Batey

Documents show that GM was aware of the problem, in which the ignition switches can inadvertently move to the "off" position under pressure from heavy keychains, since 2004. NHTSA had queried the Detroit-based automaker about it as early as 2007.

But GM didn't recall any vehicles because of the problem until last month, when it recalled 619,122 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models. At that time, the company said it knew of six deaths attributed to the problem. It expanded that campaign earlier this week when it recalled 748,000 more cars, including models of the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.

In a written statement issued Tuesday, GM president of North America Alan Batey (above) apologized for the belated response.

"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," he said. "Today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better. We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward."

General Motors could face a financial penalty of up to $35 million if NHTSA's investigation reveals it did not recall the vehicles in a timely manner. If the investigation results in the maximum fine, that would be a record. Back in December 2012, Toyota and the US government agreed to a record $17.35M fine for its own recall delays.

Saturn Ion - Red profile

GM is not counting Melton's death as part of its total related to the problem.

It's unclear whether the recalls would have emerged without a court case settled in 2013 between GM and the family of Brooke Melton, a Georgia nurse who was killed in an accident in March 2010 when her 2005 Chevy Cobalt lost power. While working on the case, an attorney who represented the Melton family learned one of GM's engineers had experienced the problem during a test drive in 2004 – before the vehicle was even on sale.

"I think this whole recall comes from that attorney," Kane said. "If it wasn't for his ability to get GM on the record, I don't think this recall happens. Now you have everybody looking at it, and congressmen calling for investigations. ... So this story is far from over, and the longer and harder we look at it, I think we'll have consumers looking at incidents that were not adequately explained before."

The Detroit News reported that GM is not counting Melton's death as part of its total related to the problem.

Industry analysts say they expect the recall news to put a dent, albeit a temporary one, into GM's sales figures.

"Safety is one of the most important attributes a car shopper looks for when considering and purchasing a vehicle," said Tony Lim, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "As GM's current customers and shoppers become aware of the recall, we expect perceptions of safety to be impacted slightly across the lineup."


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  • 30 Comments
      AngeloD
      • 9 Months Ago
      Several Mitsubishi executives were sent to prison in Japan for covering up defects. We need to start doing that here in the US. 13 dead is more than from the Ford Pinto gas tanks.
      wassupwitit21
      • 9 Months Ago
      Yeah what kinda fine is gonna hurt a company who has raked in more than 20 billion in profits over the last 3-4 yrs?
        ctsmith1066
        • 9 Months Ago
        @wassupwitit21
        I would expect more civil litigation down the line, and settlements could easily reach into the billion dollar territory.
      Jeff Gilleran
      • 9 Months Ago
      Ive known there was an ignition switch problem for years with several GM models. I just thought it was simply a bad "supplier", and these were random incidents. Looks like its a considerably worse situation. I noticed the issue was really common on the Cobalt, Pontiac Sunfire, and the Cavalier dating back from around 1996 thru the late 2000s. Needs to be remedied for sure.
      Car Guy
      • 9 Months Ago
      This all seems very dirty and political. NHTSA sits on this major investigation and only opens it AFTER the GM stock sale by the government. Plus you have the NHTSA administrator abruptly quitting 2 months ago right around the time of the stock sale. Perhaps he couldn't stomach what was going on or didn't want to be there to be the fall guy. NHTSA should be investigated just as much as GM here.
      mitytitywhitey
      • 9 Months Ago
      Criminal charges should be put on the table for anyone knowledgeable and complicit.
        ctsmith1066
        • 9 Months Ago
        @mitytitywhitey
        Those could very well be coming. I would be very surprised if the DoJ was not taking a look at this.
      rL-gT
      • 9 Months Ago
      *Insert Toyota Jab about their recalls*
      R S
      • 9 Months Ago
      I really dont see what there is to investigate? I think more in the lines of how much their fine will be! It makes my stomach turn that I made the mistake of buying a Cobalt in 2006. I had for it six months. The hub caps rattled at every bump. I took it in for service and they told me that is normal for that car, but there is a fix. I scheduled that fix and showed for my appt, they told me at dealership everyone was at lunch and to wait an hour( small dealership). I left and bought a different brand a month later and will never go back.
      mapoftazifosho
      • 9 Months Ago
      The GM fanboy is strong in here. I'll even admit that I was skeptical at first...believing that this was an issue of neglected cars drunk driving down back country roads at a high-rate of speed, but now...I'm not so certain!
      MeanMrMustard
      • 9 Months Ago
      GM is facing some deep s*** here.
      jebibudala
      • 9 Months Ago
      What? The government is investigating itself? What madness is this?
      Sam
      • 9 Months Ago
      Way to go Obama administration, GM lives but it's customers are dead. After Benghazi, what difference does it make?
        Terry Actill
        • 9 Months Ago
        @Sam
        Yeah, wooh! You sticking it to the Man, Sam. Benghazi! Wooh! Next.
        marv.shocker
        • 9 Months Ago
        @Sam
        Read the article, genius...it's gone on for as long as a decade...BEFORE Obama was president. Try to think of something intelligent to say...
      Aurio Salimonne
      • 9 Months Ago
      To all the fan boys,go to the dealer and get some cars....they are over in stock of Camaro and trucks and no one seems to care about the other small cars,proof?,you are looking now Quality means a lot and for that,there is Toyota,Mazda,Homda, and for a real quality build all wheel drive non premium brand,Subaru and reason they got Daewoo to design small cars for them is not a big step,the Cruze,Spark,Sonic are nothing special to write about and dealer service,sales not either
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