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NHTSA rattles its saber at GM over ignition problem and recalls

On the East Coast, people tend to get in your face if they are upset with you, or, for that matter, with anything. In the Midwest, there is a joke about natives being so polite that their in-your-face reaction is, “Oooooh, I’m going to write such a letter!” Here in California, we are a little more laid back, but we stand up for what we know is right.

Critics are saying that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is taking too much of a Midwestern polite approach about the General Motors Corp. recall. The automaker has recalled about 1.6 million older-model compact cars because of a dangerous ignition problem. The number of fatalities linked to the defect is now at 13.

The NHTSA has launched what looks like a comprehensive investigation into the corporation’s handling of the problem. GM, it seems, was aware 10 years ago that dangling heavy keys from the ignition switch or jarring the switch over rough roads in these models could jiggle the ignition switch out of the run position and shut off the vehicle’s motor and electrical power.

In a car with power steering and power brakes, not having power can cause both systems to fail. Without power, too, front airbags will not deploy. GM’s analysis of the fatal crashes showed that the car did not shut off in every case, but in every instance the airbags did not deploy.

So why did it take so long to recall the vehicles?

While the NHTSA kicked off its investigation with a list of 107 questions for GM, there are questions about what the agency will do when the investigation is complete. The maximum fine it could impose on the corporation is $35 million, a drop in the ocean of GM’s $3.8 billion in revenue last year.

An agency statement said that it will “take whatever action is appropriate” when its investigation is complete. Knowing its limitations, though, consumers cannot but wonder how the agency can hope to deter GM or other car companies from sitting on important safety information. No doubt, the agency will write such a letter, but that will be small comfort to anyone who is injured or who loses a loved one because of a defect like this.

Source: ABC News, “US Agency Demands Recall Data From General Motors,” Tom Krisher (Associated Press), March 5, 2014

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