GM was reluctant to recall 1.2 million vehicles for airbag issue

The 2013 Chevrolet Traverse was among the 1.2 million vehicles recalled.

DETROIT -- Even after revealing that it waited years to recall cars in which faulty ignition switches caused airbags to fail, a General Motors document suggests the automaker last month remained reluctant to issue a recall for a long-known problem with airbags on more than 1 million other vehicles.

Instead, GM on March 13 approved a less-urgent customer-satisfaction campaign -- which is not monitored by government regulators and typically less costly to automakers -- to address an airbag flaw affecting the GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook crossovers.

The next day, hours after informing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its plan, GM upgraded the campaign to a full recall, according to a chronology that GM later provided to NHTSA.

The timeline also shows that GM has known about the problem -- and that it could prevent airbags from deploying in a side-impact crash -- since 2008. Since then, GM investigated the matter at least four separate times, issued six service bulletins to dealers and bought back an unspecified number of problematic vehicles from customers, according to the document, before ultimately approving a recall on March 14.

The recall, which GM then expanded two days later, covers 1.2 million vehicles from the 2008-13 model years. GM announced the action March 17 as one of three recalls resulting from a safety review ordered by CEO Mary Barra, amid rapidly spreading fallout from the February ignition-switch recall.

“I asked our team to redouble our efforts on our pending product reviews, bring them forward and resolve them quickly,” Barra said in the March 17 statement. “That is what today’s GM is all about.”

GM spokesman Alan Adler said Tuesday that the company had believed it sufficiently addressed the issue without a formal recall. He said the airbags were prone to failing only after a customer ignored the warning light for several months and that “95 percent of the cases that we saw in warranty had working airbags.”

NHTSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

GM has said it does not know of any crashes or injuries related to the crossover recall. It said corrosion or loose crimps in the side-impact airbag wiring harness connectors can cause increased resistance, which the airbag sensing system interprets as a fault, triggering the “service airbag” message in the instrument cluster. Over time, it said, the resistance could reach a level at which a crash will not trigger the airbags and seat-belt pretensioners.

In August 2010, an engineer investigating the issue found that more than 6,800 vehicles had been the subject of at least two warranty claims for repairs related to the “service airbag” message, the timeline says. The high number of claims indicated that two previously issued service bulletins were “not entirely effective in correcting the condition,” GM told NHTSA.

Consequently, the automaker’s Executive Field Action Decision Committee, which authorizes recalls, considered the matter in November 2010 but decided to address it with another bulletin and a special warranty-coverage program. GM offered additional solutions in three more bulletins issued in 2011 and 2012, but warranty claims continued to rise.

“In 2013, call volume to GM’s Technical Assistance Center increased, as did buyback activity due to illuminated airbag service lights,” GM says in the timeline.

GM says more than 90 percent of the vehicles that experienced a problem were already repaired at least once, but those vehicles now will get additional work under the recall.

During a February presentation to the field-action committee, an investigator proposed offering special warranty coverage. Three weeks later, the investigator proposed a customer-satisfaction program, which the committee approved March 13.

“On March 14, GM contacted NHTSA regarding the proposed Customer Satisfaction Program,” GM says in the timeline. “The same day, following the call with NHTSA, the EFADC met via telephone and made a determination to issue a Safety Recall instead of a Customer Satisfaction Program.”

The recall as first approved covered 912,000 vehicles. On March 16, the committee increased the total to 1.2 million.

The day after announcing the recall, Barra appointed engineer Jeff Boyer to a newly created role of global safety chief.

“Anything that’s open out there is getting a really hard look to decide if we need to do more,” Adler said. “Everything is under the microscope at this point.”

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