Delayed Safety Recall May Haunt General Motors

Both houses of Congress are set to investigate, and the Justice Department is reportedly looking into why it took GM so long to inform the public. GM may have known about the problem for a decade.

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When General Motors announced last month of more than one and a half million vehicles, the big question was why did it take so long. Those vehicles had a fault ignition switch that has been linked to the deaths of 13 people and GM may have had information about the problem for almost a decade. Now both Houses of Congress are set to investigate. And the Justice Department is reportedly looking into whether GM broke any laws by waiting to inform the public.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Recalls are just a part of the car making business. A car has like 10,000 moving parts and sometimes one of the parts is designed poorly or breaks. Jake Fisher is head of auto testing with Consumer Reports. He says this recall is not like the others.

JAKE FISHER: One thing I think that's really important to separate this from other recalls is that this defect really affects all the vehicles.

GLINTON: Now, the cars that are involved are the Chevy Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac's G5 and Solstice and Saturn's Ion and Sky. All made between 2003 and 2007. The problem is with the ignition switch. So if you have a heavy keychain or if the switch is bumped, it could cause the car to stall and potentially not deploy the airbags.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that if you have one of these cars, you need to get it fixed. And until then, keep only one key on the ring that goes into the ignition.

Again, Jake Fisher.

FISHER: So a lot of times recalls include: This may happen. But basically this recall, it's not like one in a million are having a defect, they all have this defect. It's just a matter of time under the right circumstances - again, a big keychain or something that could actually turn the ignition off and cause this to happen.

GLINTON: The other thing that makes this recall different is the timeline. GM appears to have had at least some information about the defect for many years, but the company only recalled the cars last month. That caused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, to begin the first of a string of investigations.

ALLAN KAM: Since when did GM know and when did they know it in effect? I'm asking them, not only a corporate kind of entity or committee, but what were the names of the individuals?

GLINTON: Allan Kam was senior enforcement attorney with NHTSA. He retired before the recall in question. He says the law requires the manufacturer to initiate a recall when it knows that a safety related defect exists.

KAM: However, NHTSA has interpreted that statute to mean that a manufacturer violates the act, if it should have but failed to initiate a recall. In other words, a manufacturer, you can't play ostrich. It can't stick its head in the ground and ignore the evidence before it.

GLINTON: Now, NHTSA investigates crashes on its own when there's reason to believe that there's new technology or a defect involved. But the car companies are getting all kinds of information from dealers, consumers and suppliers about potential problems.

And Kam says as soon as a manufacturer gets information that could be safety related...

KAM: It should investigate in order to be able to make an intelligent determination as to whether a safety related defect exists and whether they have recall responsibilities under the law.

GLINTON: Congressman Tim Murphy is on the House committee that will oversee one of the investigations. The Senate is looking into the recall on its own. Murphy says he wants not only to hear from GM, but he wants to hear from NHTSA as well.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: Whenever they would get information on some crash, what did they do with this? Who was responsible? How did they analyze it? And from this get to the bottom of an issue that has been a deadly problem for many families.

GLINTON: All of this is coming at a critical time for General Motors. The U.S. government only a few short months ago sold off its share of the company after the bailout. And GM has a new CEO, Mary Barra, who even before this recall was at pains to distinguish the new GM from the old.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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