Federal officials have opened a criminal probe into General Motors’ ignition switch recall to determine if and why the company waited more than a decade to correct the problem, which is blamed for 31 crashes involving airbag failure and the deaths of 13 people.
Confidential sources told Reuters and the Associated Press that the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York will lead the investigation to determine whether GM could be held criminally liable for failing to abide by U.S. laws mandating that automakers notify federal regulators and issue a safety recall within five days of discovering a safety defect.
Depositions taken from GM engineers and other officials in a trial last year indicate that GM knew about the ignition switch problem in some of its Cobalts as far back as 2004 and even replicated the potentially deadly problem in tests.
On Feb. 13, GM recalled 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and certain Pontiac vehicles to repair an ignition switch problem that can allow the key to unintentionally slip from its “run” position to the “accessory” position when the car hits a bump or if the keychain is too heavy. As a result, the defect can cause an engine shutdown and loss of power steering, brakes, and safety systems, including the vehicle’s airbags and anti-lock brakes.
GM expanded the recall on Feb. 25 to include hundreds of thousands of additional Chevy, Pontiac, and Saturn cars, bringing the total number of affected vehicles in the U.S. to 1.4 million, not including thousands of other vehicles worldwide.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may also take some heat for failing to adequately regulate the automaker and protect the general public, as it is intended to do. According to USA Today, “Federal safety official also became aware of some cases of airbag failure and switch problems and told GM in 2007 that there had been fatalities.”
Until GM begins replacing the ignition switches on recalled vehicles next month, it urges drivers of the affected vehicles to drive with ignition key only –no keychain or other attachments.
Vehicles included in the U.S. recall are 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2007 Pontiac G5s, 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstices and Saturn Skys.