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GM ignition switch recall: Everything we know so far

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 14, 2014 12:07 PM

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General Motors, as you may have heard, is in a heap of trouble over its latest recall. Things have gotten so bad – and may continue to worsen – that Toyota’s unintended acceleration debacle could look like a speck in the mirror.

GM isn’t in trouble for recalling 1.62 million cars for faulty ignition switches. It’s in trouble for not doing so a decade or more earlier. In its latest filing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM said it first discovered the tendency for the ignition key to slip out of the “run” position as early as 2001 – at least two years before some of the affected cars went on sale. GM has reported at least 12 deaths and 31 crashes related to the defect, and some groups like the Ralph Nader-backed Center for Auto Safety are claiming there may be hundreds more.

At issue is the ignition switch plunger, which allows current to flow between the battery and the solenoid connecting the starter motor. Attached to the plunger is a spring which acts to hold the key in place. The springs on the defective switches are shorter and don't have the proper torque to keep the keys snug.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

Feb. 7 – GM recalls 619,000 cars in the U.S., including the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007 Pontiac G5, for ignition switches that can loosen and cause the engine to shut off while driving, thereby disabling all power assists (brakes, steering) and electronic safety features (airbags, anti-lock brakes).

Feb. 24 – GM recalls 748,000 additional cars, including the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice, and the 2007 Saturn Sky. At this time, GM admits it first found the problem on a Cobalt in 2004 and made a parts change for the 2007 model year after issuing a technical service bulletin. TSBs are internal memos sent to dealers that are meant to be suggested repairs for non-critical problems and while they are filed to the NHTSA database, the public is often not aware of their existence. GM didn’t do anything about the other pre-2007 cars until sometime earlier this year, despite multiple lawsuits against the company for this exact problem.

March 4 – The NHTSA, by a special order, demands GM answer a lengthy 107-point memo and turn over all related documents or else face a maximum $35 million fine and potential prison time.

March 8 – The New York Times finds more than 260 complaints in the NHTSA database regarding the ignition switch problem – in the past 11 years. The agency never once initiated an investigation, even though many times it does so based on just a single complaint.

March 10 – The Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives announces it, too, will conduct an investigation against GM and also the NHTSA for its aloofness. Subpoenas have likely been sent and a hearing will start in a few weeks.

March 11 – In another filing, GM admits it now knew about the problem since 2001. It also miscounted the number of deaths (originally 13) and said it investigated the ignition switches in 2011 but for some reason unknown did not count four deaths involving the Saturn Ion years earlier. On this same day, Reuters reports the Justice Department has a criminal probe against GM. Toyota is close to nearing a $1 billion settlement with the DOJ four years after its floor mat and gas pedal recalls – and that’s with no actual mechanical defects. GM could fare worse. The company last year settled with the family of a Georgia woman who died in an ignition switch-related accident in 2010. We don't know how many more lawsuits there are, and GM won't say.

March 13 – The nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, cofounded by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union, allege that there may be 303 related deaths from GM cars in which the airbags did not deploy in crashes. While the group cannot correlate the reasons for the crashes, they also post non-published NHTSA documents which may show the agency knew of the problem as early as 2004.

Stay tuned on this story, and if you have one of the affected cars, take everything off the key ring. Parts won’t arrive until April.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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