The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating why it took General Motors Co. almost a decade to recall 1.6 million cars over a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 deaths from crashes.
The probe could lead the agency to fine GM up to $35 million if it determines that the carmaker failed to pursue a recall when it knew the cars were defective. GM said it was "deeply sorry," as the number of vehicles being recalled has gone up to 1.6 million globally and the number of models from two to seven.
The faulty ignition switch recall covers six models in the US: 2005 to 2007 models of Chevrolet Cobalt; 2007 Pontiac G5; 2003 to 2007 models of Saturn Ion; 2006 to 2007 models of Chevrolet HHR; 2006 and 2007 models of Pontiac Solsticel and 2007 Saturn Sky. The other model is the 2005 to 2006 Pontiac Pursuit sold only in Canada.
GM's European unit, Opel, is assessing whether the Opel GT roadster is affected by the recall, German media reported. The Opel GT roadster shares a platform and components with the Saturn Sky.
Six deaths were already linked to the faulty ignition switch issue. According to GM, key rings that are too heavy or a "jarring event" can cause the ignition switches to come out of the run position. This may cause the engine to shut off, resulting in a misfire of a crash-sensing algorithm.
GM said that this chain of events cause the air bags not to deploy, thereby increasing the possibility of occupant injury in certain kinds of crashes. The carmaker said that until a correction is performed, customers should remove non-essential items from their key ring.
GM spokesman Alan Adler remarked that failure to wear seat belts and alcohol use were also factors in some of those crashes. He added that the carmaker is aware of 17 other crashes involving frontal impact and non-fatal injuries in which the air bags failed to deploy.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, remarked that the recall as a major event that General Motors should apologize for. However, the NHTSA will still impose penalty and it would want to send a message to the other carmakers to “toe the line better." GM, just like other carmakers, has a legal obligation to act on and report safety-related defects.
NHTSA can impose up to $35 million in fines to hold carmakers more accountable. Toyota Motor Corp. has recalled a large number of vehicles in 2010 due to sudden and unintended acceleration problems. Toyota and Ford Motor Co. have paid the largest fines of over $17 million for delaying recalls.