Their lives weren’t worth 57 cents to GM
Elizabeth Schulte reports on the terrible toll from corporate negligence at General Motors—and recounts her own experience with the continuing recall runaround.
Apr. 8 2014
FIFTY-SEVEN cents. That’s what it would have cost General Motors (GM) to change a faulty part to blame for crashes that have killed at least 13 people.
The calculation comes from a 2005 internal company document obtained by congressional investigators, who provided the evidence for an April 1 congressional hearing on GM.
The automaker has been forced to announce a recall of some 2.6 million cars with faulty ignition switches that could turn off the engine—as well as disable the air bags, power steering and power brakes—at any moment. But company records also show that GM knew about the problem much earlier, and did nothing about it—choosing to gamble with the lives of car owners, rather than the company’s bottom line.
On February 13, GM announced the recall of several compact cars, including the Chevrolet Cobalt. Over the month, more vehicles were added to the list. On March 28, GM expanded the recall to more recent models—because some 90,000 defective switches had been installed as replacement parts in newer vehicles.
Today, six GM models—2005-10 Cobalts, 2006-10 Pontiac Solstices, 2007-10 Pontiac G5s and Saturn Skys, 2006-11 Chevrolet HHRs and 2003-7 Saturn Ions—are now part of the recall.
The problem can be traced to a part in the vehicle’s ignition switch—the switch indent plunger—that is less “springy” than it should be, making it possible for the ignition key to turn off the engine if it’s jostled. The part is about half an inch long and costs just 57 cents, according to comments at the April 1 hearing by Rep. Diana DeGette, based on the work of investigators.
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GM’S RECALL comes a decade too late for Amber Marie Rose, a 16-year-old from Maryland who died on July 29, 2005, after her Chevrolet Cobalt crashed into a tree. The ignition switch had shut down the car’s electrical system, and the air bags failed to deploy.
A little over a year before Amber’s accident—although “accident” is the wrong word for this act of deliberate negligence—company officials rejected an internal proposal to fix the problem in the Cobalt, because it would be too costly and take too long.
In December 2005, GM even sent its dealers a bulletin saying the ignition in Cobalts might turn off when “the driver is short and has a large and/or heavy key chain.” GM told dealers that “the customer should be advised of this potential and should…[remove] unessential items from their key chain.”
But GM kept manufacturing the cars, and it didn’t issue a recall.
Another “accident” took place on October 24, 2006, when 18-year-old Natasha Weigel and 15-year-old Amy Beskau were killed after their 2005 Cobalt went off the road in St. Croix County, Wis. An investigation showed the ignition switch was in the accessory position at the time of the crash, meaning the car didn’t have power at the moment of impact—no brakes, no steering and no airbags.
Still, GM saw no reason to recall its cars.
In 2010 in Georgia, the 2005 Chevy Cobalt Brooke Melton was driving suddenly shut off, causing the crash that killed her. The accident report said she lost control, was hit by another car and ended up in a creek. It was her 29th birthday.
When her family hired someone to investigate what happened, engineer Mark Hood bought a replacement switch from the dealership and noticed something strange. The switch was different from the switch in Melton’s car, yet it had the same identification number: 10392423.
Hood had discovered that GM and its parts supplier Delphi had changed the part some time in 2006 or 2007, but kept the change quiet. In other words, the carmaker identified the deadly problem with the car, quietly changed the part and told no one—including the owners of the cars with defective switches.
"I knew the minute I kissed her forehead, her cold forehead in the ICU, I knew there was something wrong with the car," Brooke’s father Ken told an Atlanta news station after hearing about the recall.
GM stopped production of the Cobalt in 2010, but there are still more than half a million of the cars out there.