(Updates with non-recalled models in 17th paragraph.)
Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) -- An ignition-switch problem that prompted General Motors Co. to recall almost 800,000 cars last week was identified in a 2007 report to U.S. regulators who then stopped short of ordering a defect investigation.
GM, the largest U.S. automaker, said six crash deaths may have resulted from faulty switches causing engines and air bags to turn off.
“Any crashes, deaths or injuries that occurred after 2007 shouldn’t have happened,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group. “The agency shares as much blame as GM.”
A high-speed crash in Wisconsin in 2006 killed two women after a Chevrolet Cobalt went off a road and hit a telephone utility box and trees. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent researchers from Indiana University to document the crash and look at why the airbags didn’t deploy.
The team identified a ignition-switch defect similar to one described last week by GM, according to its report. The Indiana researchers said the car in the 2006 crash had its ignition switch in the auxiliary position and was equipped with advanced air bags that should have gone off.
The Indiana researchers’ report noted that a GM service bulletin sent to dealers around the same time as the October 2006 crash described a situation in which drivers can “inadvertently turn off the ignition due to low ignition-key cylinder torque.”
The investigators also noted six complaints in NHTSA databases relating to engines shutting off and loss of power in Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 sedans when the ignition-switch or key chain was contacted by the driver.
“It is not known what role, if any, this may have played in the non-deployment of the air bags,” the investigators said in the 2007 report. “Such an understanding was beyond the scope of this investigation.”
Determining whether that played a role in air bags not deploying would require “an analysis of the air-bag system and ignition wiring schematic,” they said.
NHTSA followed up on the report by asking GM for details about the Wisconsin fatalities to supplement more general data the agency already had, said Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety.
The agency didn’t initiate a defect investigation, which can lead to a recall, because the Indiana team didn’t conclude there was an identifiable safety flaw, a NHTSA spokesman, Nathan Naylor, said yesterday.
“The special-crash investigation report did not determine the cause for the airbag non-deployment or that the failure to deploy was the result of a vehicle design defect or noncompliance with federal motor vehicle regulations,” Naylor said.
GM said Feb. 13 that it was recalling Cobalt and G5 sedans from the 2005 to 2007 model years in North America.
Key rings that are too heavy or a “jarring event” can cause the ignition switches to come out of the run position, GM said last week. The engine may then shut off and result in a misfire of a crash-sensing algorithm.
That chain of events may prevent the air bags from deploying in a crash, GM said. It advised customers to remove non-essential items from their key rings.
“Safety of our consumers is paramount,” a GM spokesman, Alan Adler, said in an e-mailed statement today. “If we identify a product problem, we will do our best to take care of our customers based on the best available information that we have at the time.”
Five other models were identified in GM’s 2006 technical service bulletin: the Chevrolet HHR, the Pontiac Solstice and Pursuit (sold only in Canada), and the Saturn Ion and Sky.
GM is recalling only the Cobalt and G5 models based on its “present understanding” of their “ignition switch torque capabilities,” Adler said.
“We deeply regret any anguish this issue may have caused our customers and we will work hard to address their concerns and repair their vehicles,” he said.
Customers who own those models should have their cars serviced promptly once they get their recall notices, Naylor said. NHTSA is reviewing the recall documents and will monitor customer outreach and will take appropriate action if warranted.
--Editors: Romaine Bostick, Bernard Kohn