General Motors asserted for a decade that unexpected stalling was not a safety defect, even as its competitors issued about 90 recalls for similar symptoms during the same period and federal safety regulators opened 42 investigations into stalling.
It was only after engineers learned that flimsy ignition switches were causing airbags to fail in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions that GM treated the matter as a serious safety concern, and regulators now say GM waited nearly five more years to issue a recall after company engineers definitively learned of that connection.
Until announcing a recall in February, GM’s only public response to accumulating complaints of stalling was a series of service bulletins sent to dealerships and a June 2005 statement saying “practically any vehicle” can shut off if the ignition is bumped inadvertently. A GM spokesman told The New York Times at the time that GM didn’t consider the issue to be a safety concern because the car remained controllable and could be restarted.
In contrast, an analysis of the government’s recall database by Automotive News found that American Honda, Nissan North America, Chrysler Group and other automakers voluntarily issued multiple recalls during the same period for stalling.
“The engine could stall without warning and a crash could occur,” Honda told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2007, when it recalled nearly 167,000 cars, pickups and minivans.
Nissan said in 2010, explaining a recall of more than 747,000 SUVs and pickups: “This could cause engine stalling, increasing the risk of a crash.”
Chrysler said in 2011, as it recalled about 250,000 minivans and Dodge Journeys: “Engine shutoff while driving could increase the risk of a crash.” Chrysler told NHTSA it had looked into the issue for about six months and traced the problem to the vehicles’ ignition switch being jarred or bumped into “accessory” mode.
The frequency of such recalls raises questions not only about GM’s longstanding position, but also about why NHTSA didn’t respond to the stalling issue.
Going back to the 1970s, “NHTSA litigated a series of defect cases in the federal courts that established loss of vehicle power on the road as a safety defect,” Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, wrote last week in a letter to NHTSA’s acting administrator, David Friedman. “NHTSA did not have to wait to establish a connection between ignition switch failure and airbags not deploying to open a defect investigation and obtain a recall.”