By Brent Snavely and Nathan Bomey
Detroit Free Press
General Motors Co. faces tough questions as it grapples with a massive recall of several models with faulty ignition switches and a new investigation announced this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The automaker could face civil and criminal penalties as the agency’s investigation unfolds. Though NHTSA has never levied criminal penalties before in a recall case, it was given the power by Congress in 2000 as a result of the Ford Explorer’s rollover problems with Firestone tires.
NHTSA said it will examine “the timeliness of GM’s recall” and wants “to determine whether GM properly followed the legal processes and requirements for reporting recalls.” The defect has been connected to 13 deaths over a decade and now involves 1.37 million cars.
The recall now includes 2005-07 model year Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s, 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs and 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Skys.
A similar investigation into Toyota’s recalls for unintended acceleration resulted in a $17.5 million fine - the highest in history for the agency.
GM said it will “cooperate fully.” Earlier this week, GM apologized for the way it handled the situation, but it has not acknowledged any wrongdoing.
The defect cited involves an ignition switch in the steering column that can be jarred out of place by a heavy key chain or after being hit by a knee or other object. The switch can fail and cause the car to turn off and its air bags to no longer operate. GM has acknowledged issues with the switch and said they should be replaced.
The defect has affected consumers like Dallas sales manager Blake Higgins, owner of a 2007 Chevy Cobalt SS.
On three occasions, Higgins has accidentally bumped the ignition switch, causing the engine to turn off while he was still driving.
“I’m about 6 feet and I have pretty long legs. I sit with the seat pretty far back, so my knee is pretty close to where the ignition is,” he said. “My knee hit the switch after I hit a pretty hard bump and the car turned off.”
GM’s reputation also is on the line as it navigates the highly-charged publicity and works to answer questions from car owners across the nation worried about safety.
An automaker risks its reputation when it delays or resists a recall - especially when the defect can be linked to deaths. It took years for Ford to overcome damage to its reputation for gas tanks in the Ford Pinto that could explode in rear-end collisions.
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