"This was particularly frustrating," Frank Borris, director of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, wrote in a July 2013 e-mail to Carmen Benavides, the GM official who oversees safety investigations. The flaw was, Borris continued, "a (fairly obvious) safety issue."
The e-mail, released by a U.S. House committee investigating GM's ignition-switch recall, points to the sort of practices that have helped land the company at the center of a mushrooming crisis. When GM first addressed reports of cars stalling and ignitions slipping into "accessory" mode, it did so not with a recall but with an unpublicized service bulletin blaming heavy key rings and instructing dealers to offer plastic key inserts to customers who complain.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. used a similar strategy in 2002, when it sent dealers a bulletin about "engine surging" in some of its models, including the Camry. Toyota later paid record fines to NHTSA and agreed to a $1.2 billion settlement with the Justice Department after waiting seven more years to begin issuing recalls for sticking accelerators pedals and ill-fitting floor mats.
NHTSA's concerns about GM related to defects discovered in the years after Toyota came under fire suggest that even the post-bankruptcy "new GM" may not have taken its rival's troubles to heart as much as regulators hoped other automakers would.
It took nine more years and at least 11 more fatalities after GM first issued the "inadvertent turning of key cylinder" bulletin before the company turned the ignition-switch issue into a recall and notified customers directly. In that time, fewer than 500 customers were given key inserts.
A GM spokesman declined this past week to discuss the NHTSA e-mail or the issues raised in it.
Little-noticed technical service bulletins are one of several tactics that safety advocates say many automakers -- not just GM -- use to avoid costly recalls.
"I have a hard time seeing GM as a big standout," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass. "All of them play the same games."
But NHTSA was especially irritated with GM last year, according to the e-mail from Borris. He listed four other instances from 2011 through 2013 for which the agency felt GM improperly used service bulletins, regional recalls, warranty extensions or customer-satisfaction campaigns.
In each case, he said, NHTSA ultimately pushed GM to treat the matter more urgently. Two of the cases Borris cited resulted in NHTSA opening recall queries that remain unresolved. Two cases involved airbags that might not deploy in a crash, which also is a consequence of the ignition-switch defect in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion.