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March 17, 2014

GM Ignition Switch Probe Turns Criminal

Could a recall have been delayed to save the government’s favorite automaker?

For nearly 10 years, GM employees knew that the ignition switch design used on thousands of their compact vehicles, such as the Chevy Cobalt, Pontiac G5, and Saturn Ion, has been defective. The fatal flaw allowed the ignition to slip from the “run” position to the “accessory” position, shutting down the engine and disabling the airbags, which didn’t operate during subsequent accidents. According to The New York Times, over 300 deaths could be blamed on the failure of air bags to deploy. GM traces 13 deaths to the ignition switch itself, but since that is a conceivable cause for air bag failure the toll could be much higher.

After GM recalled 1.6 million affected vehicles last month, Congress decided to look into this as well. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced last week that he would be holding a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks. GM has also hired its own counsel for an internal investigation, tapping Lehman Brothers investigator Anton Valukas to conduct the probe.

But the slow response to a nearly decade-long issue affecting a bailout recipient from five years ago elicits one particularly bad comparison: Federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acted quickly on acceleration issues with Toyota vehicles while ignoring a similarly catastrophic defect with GM models. Reportedly the NHTSA knew about the faulty ignition switches as far back as 2007, but at the time GM was sliding toward insolvency, and a massive recall may have pushed them over the edge. Sadly, the problem was caused by a $2-$5 part that took minutes to replace. Were luckless motorists sacrificed to save GM?

Upton, who sponsored the TREAD Act over a decade ago to mandate the compilation and investigation of auto defects, seeks to “determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended.” Perhaps it depends on whom the law could be applied to and how politicians would be affected at election time because government is never deemed “too big to fail.”

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