There’s a truism among engineers: “The more complex the machine, the more likely it is to have unexpected failures.” This is certainly true for the ignition switches on automobiles. These complex little machines contain dozens of parts with tight tolerances and control multiple functions. They aren’t simply on/off electrical switches. The simple act of turning your car key engages the electrical system, several computer modules, the car’s security system, and, critically, the air bags. The opportunity for a design flaw is obvious.
The alleged defect
As early as 2004, problems were noted with the ignition switches on the Cobalt. In an NPR story, Scott Oldham of Edmunds says he noticed a problem when he was first introduced to the car, while test driving it on a track. By pulling down on the key fob “ever so slightly” while the car was running, the ignition switch would rotate to the off position. This happened more than once during the test drive, when his knee brushed against the steering column.
The defect was tracked down to a defective “detent.” This is a spring-loaded pin which engages the ignition switch assembly (operated by the key) and holds it in the on position while you drive. By not engaging firmly, the faulty detent allows the switch to rotate too easily. Even the weight of other keys on a key ring could provide enough force for the switch to rotate to the off position.
The first death associated with the alleged defect happened in 2005.
Who knew and when?
By March of 2014, Congress was investigating GM to find out what happened and why no recall was issued. Documents show that as early as 2005, upper management was aware of the problem, but decided a recall would be too expensive. Instead, they notified their dealerships of the defect and advised them how to repair the vehicles.
Meanwhile, back in 2005, the switch was still being used, and similar ignition switches were being installed in other GM vehicles.
Why wasn’t a recall issued?
It’s all about money. Remember, 2005 was the start of what would be almost the death of GM. The recession was emerging and would reach full force over the next few years. The public wasn’t buying cars and GM would end up needing government aid to survive.
Recalls are expensive. It isn’t simply the cost of replacement parts, but the expense to have them installed, especially when there may be millions of cars needing the fix. The accounting question is whether fixing all the bad product will cost more or less than the lawsuit settlements. What this callous math misses is the real human tragedy those lawsuits represent.
The first recall wasn’t issued until 2014. By delaying nearly a decade, many of the cars originally manufactured with the faulty switch are now off the road. Allegations of a cover-up to save money have been denied by GM.
The deaths and the deals
Driving down the road at expressway speeds, you suddenly have no power steering. Your car engine dies, and the airbags shut off. Completely unaware of the ignition switch problem – because it hasn’t been publicized – you struggle to steer the car to the side of the road. Not everyone makes it.
One of the first lawsuits, filed in 2010, was just recently settled for an undisclosed sum. In that case, a 29-year-old nurse was killed when her Cobalt lost power steering and power brakes. The car slid into another vehicle. The air bags didn’t deploy and the driver, Brooke Melton, died.
According to CBS News, settlement deals have been reached with the families of 64 victims who died driving one of the recalled cars. Another 108 deals have been reached with those who survived but were injured. 1,571 claims against the automaker are under review. CBS reports the company “has set aside $400 million in its compensation fund and may pay out up to $600 million.”
Is my vehicle involved?
You can find out if you have a possibly defective vehicle by visiting GM’s recall site. You will need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), found on your car’s registration and insurance documents.
If you think you or a loved one has been injured because of a defective ignition switch, it is imperative to contact an attorney to preserve your rights. Documentation is essential to prosecuting a case against GM for damages. The company has not admitted fault, even though they paid a $35 million fine for failing to disclose the problem. The Department of Justice is still deciding whether to file criminal charges against GM over this issue.