Flawed entry-level GM cars, young drivers: A combination with deadly consequences

Inexperienced owners less prepared to deal with sudden loss of power

Years after fatal accidents involving Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other recalled models, a grim picture is taking form. The now-recalled vehicles were predominantly entry-level cars marketed to first-time drivers.

DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- When Bill Trautwein offered to buy his daughter a car to drive to college classes, she went for the blue one -- a used 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that matched the color on the Florida Gators uniform her big brother wore on the way to two national football championships.

Sarah Trautwein was driving the car on a June morning in 2009 when she left the road, struck a tree and died.

While Bill Trautwein says he assumed his daughter had fallen asleep at the wheel, General Motors Co.’s recall of models including Sarah’s has made him reconsider: The ignition switches in these cars can inadvertently click off, GM said last month, cutting power to the engine and airbags, steering and brakes. A driver would find herself behind a hard-to-muscle wheel of a coasting car, with suddenly stiffer brakes.

Sarah, then 19 years old, probably wouldn’t have known what to do, Trautwein said. “She was a young driver,” he said. “It would have probably freaked her out.”

Years after fatal accidents involving Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other recalled models, a grim picture is taking form. The now-recalled vehicles were predominantly entry-level cars marketed to first-time drivers. These same drivers, according to safety and auto experts, may have been among the least prepared to react to a sudden loss of power.

“It’s a young person’s car,” said Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds.com and a veteran of more than 20 years of vehicle test drives. “When you turn off the ignition and you lose power steering, especially, it’s a very panicky feeling.”

Seven of eight

GM, in announcing its 1.6 million vehicle global recall, linked the ignition flaw to 12 deaths. More broadly, hundreds of deaths have been reported to regulators in crashes of the recalled models in which airbags failed to deploy. Now, plaintiffs attorneys are seeking to establish whether some of those deadly events may have started when an ignition key was rattled or bumped out of position. The prospective examples that are emerging span the country and include the old and the young, but strikingly the young.

A description of Sarah Trautwein’s accident appeared in a motion filed on March 24 by Texas attorney Bob Hilliard in federal court in Corpus Christi. The motion, part of a lawsuit against GM for economic damages on behalf of two plaintiffs and a proposed group, listed eight possible victims of malfunctioning GMs -- seven of whom, including Trautwein, were 25 years old or younger.

Senate hearings

The fate of such drivers promises to come to the fore next week as Senate and House committee members grill GM executives over why the company didn’t mount its recall sooner. GM CEO Mary Barra, the mother of two teenagers, is due to testify. Barra, who has apologized for GM’s delay, has said the events hit home with her as a mother. The families of several young people who died in crashes involving the recalled cars have said they plan to attend the hearings.

“As we’ve previously said, we deeply regret the circumstances that led to the recall,” GM said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “We have launched an internal review to give us an unvarnished report on what happened. We will hold ourselves accountable and improve our processes so our customers do not experience this again.”

GM has told regulators that some employees knew of the faulty switches as early as 2001. In 2005, GM said in a statement that drivers should be able to respond to a power loss in a Cobalt by restarting the engine in neutral and proceeding on their way.

Not simple

For many drivers, it wasn’t so simple. Around that same time, according to court documents, GM dealers were receiving complaints from owners whose Cobalts, Ions and other models were shutting down unexpectedly. Many came from parents who said their young drivers had brought their cars to a halt, often in the middle of an intersection or highway. Others said their kids had crashed into ditches, snowbanks or other cars.

The recalls demand a new round of questions for parents who have already lived for years with the soul searching that the loss of a child brings.

“You can’t replace her. What can I do?” said Trautwein, a 53-year-old retired military pilot, whose daughter was killed on her trip between their home in Lexington, S.C., and the nearby University of South Carolina in Columbia. Referring to new lawsuits against GM, he said: “Money isn’t the object. But hopefully it stops someone else from dying.”

First-time buyers

The recalled models emerged during a period of severe cost- cutting in the years before GM’s 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, according to several people with knowledge of the company at the time. GM designed Cobalts and Ions to target first-time buyers, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, a car information website. It priced them to compete with Toyota Motor Corp.’s Corolla small car and Honda Motor Co.’s Civic, he said.

“Their audience was aging,” Brauer said. The antidote, he said, was to build “attractive, small, entry-level cars that younger people buy.”

Soon after the cars hit the market, GM’s dealers began receiving complaints about unintentional shut-offs, including at least 16 from parents. A Colorado woman told a dealership that her 19-year-old son’s Cobalt stalled as he entered an offramp at 70 miles an hour, sending him crashing into a ditch. He hit his head and lived. A father in Kentucky said his 18-year-old daughter guided her Cobalt to a stop, once in the middle of the road, after three separate stalls.

The complaints, from March 2005 through April 2009, were among 90 dealer accounts that were read into a deposition in a wrongful-death lawsuit in Georgia that GM settled in September.

‘Customer is begging’

“Customer states how the car shut off on daughter at 55 miles per hour yesterday. Customer states now scared to put her daughter in the car,” read an Ohio dealer’s summary read into the deposition. Another, from a Georgia mother who complained of stalls: “Customer is begging for a new car. She is too afraid the car will do it again while her daughter drives it.”

GM countered concerns by asking dealers to tell customers to take heavy items from their key rings, lest the extra weight inadvertently turn the key. Several engineers deposed in the Georgia lawsuit testified that even if these models’ brakes and steering lost power, the cars could be maneuvered.

“The Cobalt is still controllable” if it loses power inadvertently, Alan Adler, a GM spokesman, said in a 2005 statement issued after two newspaper auto reviewers reported unexpected shutdowns. “The engine can be restarted after shifting to neutral.”

Adler declined a request to make additional comments beyond those GM has offered on the recall.

Lifelong customers

The recall also marks a further erosion of GM’s plan to use the Cobalt and Ion to capture lifelong customers. Young buyers haven’t yet established many brand loyalties, said Alan Baum, an auto analyst at Baum & Associates in suburban Detroit. “These people are up for grabs, and if you give them a reason not to buy your models, you could end up losing them,” he said.

In 2005, the Cobalt was deemed the “most buzz-worthy” among 49 new nameplate car launches by 19- to 28-year-olds, according to an online Kelley Blue Book/Harris Interactive survey of more than 20,000 U.S. car shoppers that year.

Heather Heaster turned 16 that year, and her dad told her she could pick out a car. Her parents, loyal to GM cars, wanted Heather to buy a Chevrolet, according to Heather and her mother, Gwenda Heaster.

Heather picked out a bright red 2005 Cobalt with a sunroof. She had it about a month, she said, when it stalled at dusk on a two-lane road near the family’s home in Crawley, West Virginia.

Decorative eagle

“You saw the speedometer and the fuel gauge and they all just went to zero,” Heather recalled in an interview. “I couldn’t turn my wheel because the power steering cut out. And the brakes, I went to stop, and you couldn’t push them in. Luckily, when it happened, there was a place to pull off.”

A mechanic at the local Chevy dealership blamed her heavy key chain, she said, for torquing the key out of position. She removed a little cloth boot, a decorative eagle and a lanyard, she said. The stalls continued. The dealership eventually gave her a 2006 model that she said didn’t stall.

The Heaster family’s experience was among those read into the deposition in the Georgia wrongful-death suit. Reminded of it all almost a decade later, Heather, now a 25-year-old dental student at West Virginia University, said she wouldn’t buy a Chevy again given what she’s learned of GM’s handling of the situation.

“Now it’s too late,” she said. “People have lost their lives over this.”

Rock wall

The latest wave of probes and lawsuits against GM will help explore what separated Heather Heaster’s experience from the final drive of Sarah Trautwein.

Trautwein’s mother, Renee Trautwein, is working with Hilliard on the case. She declined to comment until they receive information the Texas firm has requested from police about the ignition switch’s final position in the daughter’s car, according to Lauren Gomez, a paralegal.

Among the young drivers featured in Hilliard’s March 24 filing is Michael Sharkey, who had owned his used 2006 Chevy Cobalt for about two weeks in June 2012 when it veered off State Route 22 near Dresden, New York, crashed into a rock wall and burst into flames. Sharkey, badly burned, crawled from the car and died at the scene.

Nothing stupid

The 21-year-old had saved up his money and borrowed more from his dad to buy the Chevy when a Toyota model he was considering wasn’t available, said his mother, Cherie Sharkey. At the time of the crash, there were no indications he had used drugs or alcohol and no one was sure what had happened, she said. Now she, too, is concerned the crash may be linked to the GM recall.

“You expect your vehicle to be safe,” Sharkey said. “It’s not like he was doing anything stupid, and that is so wrong.”

While several auto safety experts and driving instructors said younger drivers would be particularly challenged by the recalled models’ power losses, others said the scenario could jar any driver. Very few drivers would easily adapt to a car that loses power on the highway, said Allen Robinson, who has been training driving instructors for 40 years.

“It’s going to be a real problem and most people are not going to know how to deal with it,” said Robinson, the CEO of the American Drivers Traffic Safety Education Association, which represents traffic safety educators and manages the National Student Safety Program. “These sorts of mechanical failures are so infrequent that you can’t really prepare people for them.”

Saturday pancakes

Safety and reliability was the goal for Mary Ruddy, whose 21-year-old daughter Kelly died in a 2010 accident when her 2005 Cobalt overturned and threw her onto the highway. In December 2009, Ruddy recalled, her daughter’s car became unreliable for her commute to Marywood University in Scranton, Pa.

“She was sitting in the kitchen. It was a Saturday morning. It was a ritual in our house -- every Saturday or Sunday I made pancakes or waffles,” Ruddy said, describing the conversation when she decided to give her own 2005 Cobalt to her daughter to ensure a safe drive to school.

“She was sitting in the kitchen with me while I was cooking, and she was thinking about how she was going to be going back to school, and she wanted her independence, and she wanted a car, and like I said, her car was not working, she said, ‘What am I gonna do?’” Ruddy said.

“I cupped her face in my hands, kissed her on both cheeks and I said, ’You can have mommy’s car.’”

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