The first time Samantha Denti's Chevrolet Cobalt stalled, other cars swerved and avoided her on a busy New Jersey highway. She was shaken by the incident, but okay. Months later, the car stalled again, this time on the off-ramp of a highway in Tennessee. Again shaken by the incident, she reached for her keys with trembling hands, and to her surprise, the car re-started immediately.
Mechanics at her local dealership found the problem. They told Denti to remove the keys from her keychain, and the problem would be solved. Driving with only the ignition key and a house key on her keychain weeks later, she escaped a third pileup when the car turned off again. "This car was surely a death trap," she said.
She was lucky.
At least 13 others died in car accidents caused by the same faulty ignition switch that affected her Cobalt. The defect has been linked to at least 31 car accidents. General Motors, maker of the Denti's Chevrolet, knew about the defect in 2001 – four years before the car event went into production – but didn't do anything to fix the cars. The company's decade-long delay in recalling the cars has been the subject of several investigations.
On Monday, Denti stood with the family members of other victims and congressmen organized by safety advocates in the shadow of the Capitol Building in Washington DC and pressed General Motors for answers. Their pleas came hours before GM CEO Mary Barra was scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, which is investigating the inaction of the automaker as well as the response of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The gathering was livestreamed online by SafeRoads.org.
"Driving this car was playing a game of Russian roulette," Denti said on the livestream. "I cannot comprehend the losses these families are going through."
Parents and caregivers of those who died held pictures of their loved ones and put their despair into words, recounting the prom dresses that went unworn, the wedding-day jitters they would never share, the grandchildren they would never see.
"Our husbands, wives and children, our love ones were the cost of doing business, GM style," said Laura Christian, the birth mother of Amber Marie Rose, who was killed when her car struck multiple trees on July 29, 2005. Emergency medical personal said she would be alive if her airbags had deployed.
They did not. Investigators found her ignition switch in the "accessory" position, where it had inadvertently slipped, thus turning off both the engine and crucial safety functions including the airbags. For years, GM has been "fighting the problem, and not fixing the problem," Christian said.
Standing alongside the victims' families, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) held an ignition switch in his hands. He said the cost difference between the faulty one that killed people and one that properly worked was $2. Yet documents show that GM said it was not cost effective to switch the parts.
Even after GM found evidence of nine Cobalt crashes involving non-deployed airbags by 2007, the company did not act until February of this year to recall more than 2.5 million affected vehicles that include the Cobalt, Chevy HHR, Saturn Ion, Pontiac Solstice and two other models.
"This recall is a decade late and dozens of lives and injuries short," Markey said. "What's almost as enraging is the Transportation Department's failures let a car company hide fatal defects."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Markey have introduced legislation that would require automakers to submit documents that alert them to fatal accidents, require the Department of Transportation to publish information it currently keeps secret and require the DOT to upgrade databases that could be used by consumers.
The congressmen also said GM's current advice to customers is fraught with danger: The company has said affected vehicles are safe to drive, so long as motorists remove all keys from their keychains. Several of the congressmen and family members who spoke Tuesday said that's ludicrous.
"These particular models are unsafe at any speed behind that wheel," Blumenthal said. "Until they are repaired, they should not be driven."