Published on February 27, 2014

NHTSA opens probe into GM recall timing

Crain News Service report

WASHINGTON (Feb. 27, 2014) — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into the timeliness of General Motors Co.'s recall of faulty ignition switches on 1.37 million vehicles in the U.S.

The agency said late Feb. 26 it will determine whether GM "properly followed legal processes and requirements for reporting U.S. recalls."

On Feb. 25, GM added more than 588,000 vehicles to a recall to fix ignition switches that can inadvertently shut off engines and cause accidents. The problem has now been linked to 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths and sparked criticism of the company's years-long investigation of the problem.

The additional models increase the total number of vehicles recalled in the U.S. to 1.37 million. Overall, GM is recalling 1.6 millions vehicles with the problem worldwide.

The large recall covers 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Sky vehicles.

A heavy key ring or jarring from rough pavement can move the ignition out of the run position, cutting off the engine. If that happens, the front air bags may not work, GM said.

GM said it first learned of the engine cutoff problem in 2004, around the time the 2005 Cobalt went on sale.

The car maker initially said on Feb. 13 that it would recall 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s from the 2005 through 2007 model years to inspect and repair the ignition switch.

The company filed documents with U.S. safety officials on Feb. 24 that detail the initial recall of "the ignition switch torque performance condition" in Chevrolet Cobalts, and Pontiac G5s and Pursuits.

NHTSA urged owners and drivers to follow GM's recommendation to "use only the ignition key with nothing else on the key ring" when operating the vehicle and seek the permanent repair remedy from GM as soon as replacement parts are available.

Under federal regulations, once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it must, within five business days, inform NHTSA of its plan for a recall or face a civil fine. In GM's case, the maximum penalty could be $35 million.

NHTSA said it "will monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues and take additional appropriate action as warranted."

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., citing the GM recall in a letter to NHTSA officials Feb. 26, said the government's system designed to detect safety issues early is not working.

Had the system worked better, it might have saved lives, Sen. Markey said in a letter to David Friedman, the acting administrator of the safety agency, The New York Times reported.

"We need to overhaul the early-warning reporting system so that N.H.T.S.A. is not looking at auto defects through a rearview mirror," Sen. Markey said in a separate statement, The Times reported. "Making more information public can help prevent accidents and deadly crashes."

Sen. Markey is a member of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees NHTSA.

The government's early-warning system was created under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act.

Congress passed the 2000 law after a series of hearings into defects on Firestone tires on some Ford Explorer SUVs that caused multiple rollover crashes and deaths. The system requires auto makers to notify NHTSA in a timely matter of possible defects that caused death or injuries.

Sen. Markey asked NHTSA to issue a new rule requiring auto makers to provide the "detailed underlying documents that first alerted the manufacturer to the potential problem," The Times reported.

He said the information should also be made available on NHTSA's website for public access.

The agency often declines to release such information publicly because some material is confidential during an active investigation.

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This report appeared on autonews.com, the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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