In a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra, Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the company's botched handling of the problem was "unworthy of GM's global standing, unacceptable to GM's customers and a sad insight into GM's corporate culture."
Documents have shown General Motors was aware there was a problem with ignition switches in certain models of its cars as early as 2004. But no vehicles were recalled until February of this year. In the interim, the defect caused at least 13 known deaths and 31 crashes.
Recall notices have not yet been sent to drivers who own certain Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models, but when they are mailed, Claybrook wants the the severity of the threat made clear.
"It is imperative that GM's letter to owners be a true safety alert, emphasizing the real possibility of death or severe injury," she wrote to Barra. "Often, auto manufacturers do not want to admit the full dangers in safety recall letters. I am writing to urge you to ensure that GM fully informs your customers and puts their lives and safety before concerns about GM's reputation."
Claybrook served as NHTSA's administrator from 1977 to 1981, and has been one of the country's leading road safety advocates. In a written response to questions about Clayrbook's letter, GM said, "that approach and the gravity of the recall will be expressed in the letters we send to affected customers."
On Wednesday, current NHTSA officials ramped up their scrutiny of GM's handling of the defective ignition switches, which can inadvertently slip from the "run" to the "accessory" position and turn off airbags and other electronics. The agency sent GM a special order that directs company leaders to answer questions on 107 separate aspects of how they handled the problem by April 3.
Among the queries:
- NHTSA wants to know the number of consumer complaints GM received, number of field reports, reports of crashes involving injuries and fatalities and the details on lawsuits both pending and closed.
- What's the difference between a redesigned ignition switch the company began using in 2007 and the one GM intends to fix the affected cars with now?
- According to a statement from GM North American president Alan Batey, the company's investigation of the defect was "not as robust as it should have been." Describe in detail the ways in which GM's process "was not as robust as it should have been" and GM's plans (if any) to change its process.
- Define testing and analysis that further determined that a key moves from the run to accessory position, and how that key movement affects airbag deployment.
NHTSA said GM's responses to its questions must be under oath, accompanied by an affidavit and signed by "a responsible member" of the company. Failure to respond by the deadline could lead to a further investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, in which the automaker could be subject to criminal penalties.
A DOJ investigation into a deadly vehicular problem doesn't happen often, but there is precedent. The federal agency investigated Firestone in 2000 after 88 deaths were blamed on defective tires, and the DOJ's U.S. Attorney's Office has led a four-year investigation into Toyota's unintended acceleration problem.
A Department of Justice spokesperson did not return requests for comment on whether it was mulling an investigation of General Motors.
GM sales slid one percent year over year in February, when the recall was first announced. Analysts are monitoring whether the ongoing problem will affect sales of current models, but believe the impact will be minimal because all the affected vehicles are no longer on sale. But they are watching to see how the government's investigation proceeds.
"While the timeframe suggests this issue occurred before GM's restructuring, it's clear the government will hold current management responsible if it finds a lack of urgency and transparency," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.