February 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

GM put off ignition switch recall for years; 13 deaths linked to issue

2007 Chevrolet Cobalt. (GM)

General Motors Co. — which Tuesday doubled the size of its recall for older cars with faulty ignition switches that can cause air bags not to deploy in crashes — spent nearly a decade studying the issue and repeatedly opted not to recall the vehicles or pay for potentially expensive fixes.

The Detroit automaker said it will recall more than 1.6 million cars worldwide after reports of 13 deaths and 31 crashes linked to the issue. The decision that came less than two weeks after the automaker insisted it needed to recall only about 780,000 cars.

A chronology of its actions turned over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday showed GM downplayed the ignition switch issue in prior years, including canceling in 2005 an approved redesign of the ignition key head. By the end of 2007, GM said it knew of 10 frontal crashes in which air bags didn’t deploy — linked to the ignition problem — but the automaker opted not to recall the cars.

GM North America President Alan Batey said the company was “deeply sorry” for the issue, a rare apology for the automaker over a safety issue.

“The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been,” Batey said in a statement. “Today’s GM is committed to doing business differently and better. We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward.”

GM said some vehicles’ ignition switches weren’t tightened properly. The company said if a heavy key ring is added or the car runs off the road or experiences some other “jarring” event such as a crash, the ignition switch may inadvertently move out of the “run” position. That, in turn, disables the air bags.

GM had initially defended the decision not to recall similar vehicles, suggesting most deaths were at high speeds and that some involved alcohol.

GM issued a dealer bulletin in December 2005 that warned dealers about problems with switches and heavy key rings. It said owners should be advised of the issue and “take steps to prevent it,” such as removing unnecessary items from key chains.

GM didn’t think the vehicles needed to be recalled for years because of the low incidence of problems. It thought the notice to dealers was enough because if the vehicle was accidentally shut off because the ignition key moved, the driver would be able to steer and brake the car.

In a sign of how serious the issue is, both GM and NHTSA urged owners to only use the key for the vehicle when driving, after removing it from the key ring and fob. Dealers will replace the ignition switch. Until repairs are made, GM is urging drivers to use only the ignition key. GM said the first parts will be available the week of April 7.

NHTSA says it is in talks with GM on several issues “including the timeliness of GM’s identification of the vehicle safety defect.”

Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, said GM’s apology was unusual. “General Motors made a terrible mistake when it failed to recall these vehicles in 2006 when it knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it. At least 13 people have died as a result of air bags failing to deploy in the cars covered by the expanded recall. By apologizing, the company is hoping to avoid criminal penalties under the Safety Act and only being fined $35 million, which is the maximum civil penalty,” he said.

Sean Kane, a safety advocate who often works with lawyers who sue automakers over safety issues, said GM had no choice but to expand the recall. “The writing was on the wall. This problem only gets worse for General Motors as time goes on,” he said.

The issue is the latest safety problem to dog the automaker in recent weeks — and it’s the first major issue to face the automaker’s new CEO, Mary Barra.

The recall now covers 1.37 million cars in the U.S. and a total of 1.62 million, including vehicles in Canada and Mexico. Earlier this month, GM said it would recall about 619,000 cars in the U.S.

The issue ranks among the more serious recalls in terms of total alleged deaths in recent years, though is by no means the largest. Over a decade, there were reports of 93 deaths linked to sudden acceleration problems in millions of vehicles, but NHTSA confirmed a link in just five deaths. Last year, NHTSA urged Chrysler Group LLC to recall 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs for fire risks after reports of 51 deaths in rear collisions. More than 200 deaths were linked to faulty tires on Ford Explorers in rollover crashes in the 1990s.

GM said it knows of 31 reported incidents involving frontal crashes that may have been linked to the recall problem, including most where the ignition switch in the “accessory” or “off” position — a factor that may have caused the front air bags not to deploy including 13 front-seat fatalities.

In the initial recall, GM said it knew of six deaths in five crashes. GM spokesman Alan Adler said after the Feb. 13 recall notice, GM learned of a sixth fatal crash in which two people died. The new recall also includes crashes in Saturn Ions in which five other people died, Adler said.

“We won’t be able to fix all the cars at one time,” Adler said in an interview. “We’ll work with customers on an individual basis.”

GM began investigating the issue in 2004 after receiving a report of an ignition key moving out of place in a 2005 Cobalt and the vehicle losing power. GM replicated the problem in testing, but opted not to fix it “after consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness of each of the solutions,” according to documents GM submitted to NHTSA.

After more reports in 2005 of problems, GM approved a redesign of the ignition key head, but later canceled it.

In late 2005, GM told reporters that the service bulletin to alert dealers to the problem and providing key inserts was enough. GM provided key inserts under warranty for nearly 500 owners.

In 2007, GM employees met with NHTSA to talk about safety systems. NHTSA told GM of a July 2005 fatal crash involving a Cobalt in which the air bags didn’t deploy and the diagnostic module showed the key was in the accessory mode.

GM began investigating the issue and had learned of 10 frontal crashes by the end of 2007; data showed the key was in the accessory position for four of the crashes.

By 2011, GM said its investigators had more examples but didn’t recall the cars because many of the crashes involved high speeds and violent impacts.

Last year, GM began investigating the problem again. GM retained an engineering firm to help investigate and found that the older switches weren’t as strong as ones built after 2010. In October, GM’s supplier turned over records that showed changes had been made in 2006.

Adler said if GM had had all the information back then, “we would have acted differently.”

Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, said GM could suffer some image backlash with this recall: “There is an indication that they knew that there was an issue and decided not to have a recall.”

GM will notify all affected customers and perform repairs at no charge.

Correction The story box has been corrected to say 2007 Pontiac G5 and 2007 Saturn Sky.

Melissa Burden contributed.