Safety Agency Decided Not to Investigate Faulty Ignition Switches That Killed 13 People

Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, stands beside a new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt in 2003. Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, stands beside a new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt in 2003. Nick Ut/AP file photo

General Motors is sure to bear the burnt of the responsibility for the faulty ignition switches that killed 13 people and led to the long-delayed recall of millions of vehicles, but it turns out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed us, too.

According to a House memo in advance of the April 1 hearings on the recall, the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation decided way back in 2007 that reports of airbags not deploying properly were not worth looking into, despite four deaths. The airbag not deploying was one of the problems caused by the faulty ignition switch: it shut the car's power off, causing it to stop moving and deactivating the airbags, something you might find useful/lifesaving when your car just shuts off in the middle of the highway.

In 2010, the ODI "again considered Cobalt trend information on non-deployment but determined the data did not show a trend." By that time, at least two more people had died in an accident in which airbags did not deploy. This time, the car's ignition was found to be in "accessory" mode (basically, what you turn the ignition to when you want to turn the engine off but still listen to the radio). That's not supposed to happen when you're actually driving, but the ODI didn't find it strange enough to merit anything further. So not once, but twice did the ODI elect not to look into problems with GM cars.

In a statement, the NHTSA said: "As we have stated previously, the agency reviewed data from a number of sources in 2007, but the data we had available at the time did not warrant a formal investigation." Yet the New York Times points out that "the safety agency has often opened investigations based on far less information."

On Friday, GM expanded its recall to another million cars, bringing the total to about 2.6 million. And that's just the cars that could have faulty ignition switches. In all, almost 4.8 million GM cars and trucks have been recalled in 2014 alone. Last year, Toyota was the automaker with the most recalls with 5.3 million. GM is closing in on that number, and it's only been three months.

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