Deadly Error: GM’s Faulty Ignition Switch

In February 2014, General Motors, one of the biggest American automotive conglomerates, recalled almost 1.6 million of its cars due to a defect. Since then, the recall has expanded by almost a million cars, topping 2.6 million as of March 28. Some of the cars recalled include those of some of GM’s most iconic brands: Chevrolet, Saturn, and Pontiac. As analysts and engineers have found, some models of these brands have a faulty ignition switch. When the car is running, sometimes the ignition switch would suddenly turn off, turning off the electrical flow of the car and, consequently, the airbags. As a result, any subsequent crash caused by the car’s shutting down would prove extremely deadly. Over a dozen people have been killed due to this defect. The victims were either hit by other cars or suffocated by airbags that should not have deployed in the first place. What’s even worse is that GM knew about this defect for 13 years but did not do anything about it.

GM CEO Mary Barra testifies before Congress about GM’s defective ignition switch. The switch involved a spring that was too weak and would collapse under heavy weight from the key. Image by Forbes (no free equivalent image of Barra was available).

The problem first dates back to 2001. When GM first began making its Saturn Ion model, engineers noticed a defect in the Ion’s ignition switch during pre-production. After the company conducted a minor investigation into the defect in 2003, engineers and executives realized that simply changing the key ring fixed the problem, and decided not to do a deeper investigation because they thought it was only an issue with a single car model. However, in 2004, the defect again showed up, this time in the Chevrolet Cobalt. In 2005, GM engineers decided not to fix the defect because it would be too costly and take too long. All this while, they kept the problem a secret, not informing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its deadly implications. Instead, GM sent a message to dealers to inform new customers to not put too many heavy items on their keys, a venture which eventually did not work. In 2005, a Maryland resident driving a Cobalt experienced shock when the ignition suddenly turned off mid-drive, turning off the electricity and the airbags. When she ran into a tree because she could not control her car, the airbags failed to deploy, and she died. Since then, a dozen more people have been killed and over 30 injured in similar circumstances, and only now has GM come out and told NHTSA about the ignition switch defect.

One of the most heinous parts of this story is that we, the taxpayers, bailed GM out with our money when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy during the financial crisis of 2008. Essentially, we have given GM money, yet they have failed to spend our own dollars to ensure our safety in their vehicles. According to engineers, fixing the faulty ignition switch in one of the affected cars would have cost a mere 90 cents, including the cost of labor. That is a cost of $2.3 million for a nearly $30 billion company. Mary Barra, who was made CEO of GM after Fritz Henderson stepped down from the post in January, insists that she does not know why it took so long to address this problem and repeatedly states that GM is conducting an internal investigation. The government, the families of the victims, and we, the taxpayers, deserve an explanation as to why GM determined not to tell NHTSA about the problem and did not aid in investigations involving crashes that they knew the defect was behind. We as a country must hold GM true to a promise they made back in 2008 to “reinvent themselves and lead an economic recovery in America.”

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