• U.S. safety agency likely probing GM recall response
     | February 27,2014

    DETROIT — The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog likely is looking into whether General Motors was slow to report problems that led to 13 deaths and a massive recall of small cars.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority to fine the company at least $35 million for not being forthcoming with information.

    GM on Tuesday doubled to 1.6 million the number of small cars being recalled to fix faulty ignition switches linked to multiple fatal crashes. The company also issued a rare apology, saying its process to examine the problem was not robust enough.

    The safety agency said in a statement Tuesday that it is reviewing GM documents and has questions about when GM found the ignition defect and when it notified regulators. Documents filed by GM show it knew of the problem as early as 2004.

    “NHTSA will monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues and will take appropriate action as warranted,” the statement said. A spokesman wouldn’t say what action is being considered or comment further.

    Since undergoing a painful bankruptcy in 2009, GM has removed layers of bureaucracy, improved the quality of its vehicles and is quicker to issue recalls when problems occur. However, its admission that its processes were lacking 10 years ago shows how the old culture can still haunt the automaker.

    “The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been,” GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement. “Today’s GM is committed to doing business differently and better.”

    On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Then on Tuesday, it doubled up, adding 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). Most of the cars were sold in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

    GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position and shut off the engine and electrical power. That can knock out power-assisted brakes and steering and disable the front air bags. The problem has been linked to 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths. In the fatalities, the air bags did not inflate, but the engines did not shut off in all cases, GM said.

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