GM data trail raises stink in delay of Cobalt recall
DETROIT — For years, the federal government's auto safety watchdog sent form letters to worried owners of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other General Motors small cars, saying it didn't have enough information about problems with unexpected stalling to establish a trend or open an investigation.
The data tell a different story.
An Associated Press review of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that over a nine-year period, 164 drivers reported that their 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts stalled without warning. That was far more than any of the car's competitors from the same model years, except for the Toyota Corolla, which was recalled in response to a government investigation in 2010.
Stalling was one sign of the ignition switch failure that led GM last month to recall 1.6 million Cobalts and other compact cars, including the Saturn Ion, Pontiac G5 and Chevrolet HHR. An additional 971,000 cars from model years 2008-11 were recalled late Friday to find faulty replacement switches, bringing the total to about 2.6 million.
GM has linked the problem to at least 12 deaths and dozens of crashes. The company said the switch can slip out of the “run” position, which causes the engine to stall. This knocks out the power steering and power-assisted brakes, making the car harder to maneuver. Power to the device that activates the air bags also is cut off.
GM has recently acknowledged it knew the switch was defective at least a decade ago, and the government started receiving complaints about the 2005 Cobalt just months after it went on sale. House and Senate subcommittees have called the current heads of the automaker and NHTSA to testify on Tuesday and Wednesday about why it took so long for owners to be told that there was a potentially deadly defect in their cars.
Although the overall number of complaints represents only 0.02 percent of the nearly 625,000 Cobalts sold from 2005-07 in America, experts familiar with NHTSA say they were enough to warrant an investigation and recall. The Cobalt had about the same rate of complaints as the Corolla. And the agency knew of at least two fatalities in Cobalt crashes that involved a sudden stall when it first declined to investigate the cars in 2007.
Spotting trends in the tens of thousands of complaints NHTSA gets each year is a tough job, and this case may have been more complicated than most.
The Cobalt had a litany of problems, including fuel leaks and a power steering defect that the agency did investigate. GM may not have disclosed all the information it had on the switches. And the 2010 recall of millions of Toyotas for unintended acceleration claimed much of the government's attention.
But several experts say NHTSA should have pressed for a recall sooner.
“They're not connecting the dots. That's the generous explanation,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, who has studied the government's auto safety agency for decades. “The not-so-generous is that they did connect the dots but they just didn't do anything.”
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department oversees auto safety, has asked for an internal investigation into the GM issue.
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