The recent recalls issued by General Motors (NYSE:GM) that cover 1.3 million older model vehicles for faulty ignition cylinders brought with them many complaints about the company’s slow reaction to the problem, which has reportedly led to 13 fatalities and 31 accidents due to the defect. For those who haven’t been following, in select years of the Pontiac G5 and Solstice, Saturn Ion and Sky, and Chevrolet HHR and Cobalt models, extraneous weight on the driver’s keyring could cause the car to shut down at speed, therefore disabling the power steering, power brakes, and the airbags.
GM initially launched a recall of 778,000 G5s and Cobalts but quickly expanded the recall as more vehicles came to light. It covers 1.37 million vehicles in the U.S. and 1.6 million worldwide. And while a recall of this magnitude and severity is usually a large headache, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is launching an investigation of its own to determine whether General Motors “properly followed legal processes and requirements for reporting U.S. recalls.”
“We deeply regret the events that led to the recall and this investigation. As our detailed chronology indicates, we intend to fully cooperate with NHTSA and we welcome the opportunity to help the agency have a full understanding of the facts,” GM said in a statement.
General Motors first knew of the problem in 2004 but failed to take any sort of recall action until a decade later. Engineers even pitched a fix to the company in 2005, but that repair was never implemented, Automotive News reports. The publication says that GM repaired the ignition switches on 474 cars covered by a service bulletin to dealers, which was issued in 2005 and updated a year later.
Federal regulations require that once manufacturers become aware of a safety hazard, they have five business days to inform the NHTSA of its plan for a recall or be subject to a fine. In GM’s case, the fine could amount to some $35 million after Congress raised the maximum amount that the agency can charge to establish more accountability. The NHTSA said it “will monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues and take additional appropriate action as warranted” in this particular instance.
David Strickland, the NHTSA’s former administrator, told Automotive News that that the agency will consider the frequency of the incidents, the number of cars covered by the recall and the severity of injuries in determining how much to penalize a manufacturer. ”They look at the egregiousness of the facts, whether a manufacturer knew or should have known,” he said.
However, it can’t be overlooked that the NHTSA’s own system has some shortcomings of its own. Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said the government’s entire recall system is broken. The Center helped push for a wider recall.
“GM doesn’t get a get-out-of-jail-free card just because NHTSA did a sloppy job,” he said to Automotive News. Congress passed laws in 2000, measures that were sparked by the Firestone-Ford Explorer debacle. In theory, the laws require automakers to notify the NHTSA of possible defects that caused death or injuries within a reasonable period of time.