The Department of Justice and committees in the U.S. House and Senate opened investigations into the timeliness of GM’s reporting crashes due to ignition switch defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the NHTSA’s failure to investigate sooner.
GM reported that the weight of a key ring, perhaps coupled with road conditions, may cause the ignition switch to be jarred from the “run” position, turning off the engine and shutting down the car’s electrical power, which causes the airbags to fail to deploy.
Although GM said that it would “certainly cooperate fully” with the NHTSA in its investigation, it argued that, even when the switches fail, the car can still be steered and stopped, so it isn’t unsafe. In saying this, GM failed to consider the result of a car suddenly stopping in the middle of an intersection or in a place where it is impossible to turn off to the side of the road, out of traffic, and stop the vehicle.
GM finally admitted “safety concerns” in a 2013 civil lawsuit following the death of a 29 year old woman who was killed when her Cobalt’s switch slipped out of “run” into “accessory,” stopping the engine, causing her car to spin out of control and be hit broadside by another vehicle. Her death was not among those cited by GM, which only counted fatal frontal collisions for the recall, because those are the only crashes in which front air bags should deploy.
GM’s Timeline of Negligence
GM recently conceded that, as early as 2004, it not only discovered that the switch in a soon-to-go-on-sale Cobalt could move out of “run” to “accessory” cutting power, it was able to repeat the problem in tests. However, because of time and cost to fix the problem, the car went on sale with the faulty switch.
In 2005, GM engineers suggested a simple change in the ignition switch from a slot to a round hole to minimize the chances that a key could pull out of “run” with a heavy key chain or a sudden jolt to the vehicle. GM, however, told dealers to modify the ignition switch only if customers complained.
In 2006, Delphi supplied GM with a better switch but didn’t give the modified part a different number than the original part, so the factory, dealerships and repair shops had no way to tell if a switch was the older or newer, supposedly safer design.
In 2007, the NHTSA for the first time gave details to GM on a fatal Cobalt crash in 2005, in which airbags failed to deploy and the key was in “accessory.” Only then did GM assign an engineer to track Cobalt crashes where the airbags fail, but only front end crashes.
In 2009, GM adopted a new key design modeled on the 2005 suggestions.
Finally in 2013, GM determined that switches made before the 2006 modifications failed to meet its design specifications.
Companies are required by law to report to the NHTSA within 5 business days of finding a safety defect.