GM recalls some cars, but not all, with ignition switch problem
General Motors in 2006 sent dealers a technical service bulletin warning that because of an ignition problem, a heavy key chain hanging from the ignition could turn off the engine on six models. But only two of those models were covered in last week's recall of 778,000 vehicles in the United States and Canada for the problem that the automaker now says could keep air bags from deploying in a crash.
Had General Motors recalled the other four models covered by the technical service bulletin, it would have more than doubled the size of the recall in the United States, where the 619,000 vehicles now subject to recall include the 2007 Pontiac G5 and the 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalt.
In a Feb. 13 letter, G.M. told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the ''ignition switch torque performance'' was not up to specifications. If the vehicles were jarred or the owner had a heavy key ring, the engine could be turned off, which would disable the air bags, the automaker said.
G.M. said it was aware of six deaths in five crashes in which the front air bags did not deploy. But the automaker said some of the crashes involved alcohol, the failure to wear seatbelts and high speeds.
In the United States, the models covered by the bulletin but not subject to the recall were the 2006-7 Chevrolet HHR, the 2006-7 Pontiac Solstice, the 2003-7 Saturn Ion and the 2007 Saturn Sky. According to an analysis by Experian Automotive, about 643,000 of those vehicles are still registered, including 403,000 Ions, 191,000 HHRs, 35,000 Solstices and 14,000 Skys.
Asked why the additional models were not recalled, Alan Adler, a General Motors spokesman, wrote in an email that ''G.M. has devoted significant time and resources to evaluating this issue, and has concluded that the 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalt and the 2007 G5 should be recalled.'' He declined to answer additional questions.
But Michael Brownlee, a former associate administrator for enforcement at N.H.T.S.A., who retired in 1997, said that if the ignition switches were all of the same type, there was a ''strong presumption'' for recalling all of the vehicles listed in the technical service bulletin. The document shows that G.M. knew it had a safety problem years ago and should have recalled all of the vehicles, Joan Claybrook, who was chief of the agency from 1977 to 1981, wrote in an email.
''This defect is not rocket science,'' Ms. Claybrook said. ''General Motors and its executives should be fined the maximum penalties under civil and criminal law for their reckless disregard to the safety of their customers.''
An agency spokesman said it was ''reviewing recall documents, available data and will take appropriate action as warranted.''
Mr. Adler, the G.M. spokesman, said the service bulletin ''was based on the facts as understood at the time. Safety of our consumers is paramount to G.M.; given our present understanding of the 2005-7 Cobalt ignition switch torque capabilities, we have announced a recall.''
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Mr. Adler did not immediately respond when asked whether G.M. knew when the technical service bulletin was sent out advising that turning off the engine would disable the air bags.
Automakers routinely send dealers technical service bulletins to make them aware of problems and provide remedies. The 2006 bulletin was titled ''Information on Inadvertent Turning of Key Cylinder, Loss of Electrical System.''
''The concern is more likely to occur if the driver is short and has a large and/or heavy key chain,'' the bulletin said. ''In these cases, this condition was documented and the driver's knee would contact the key chain while the vehicle was turning and the steering column was adjusted all the way down. This is more likely to happen to a person who is short, as they will have the seat positioned closer to the steering column.''
Dealers were informed that customers should be told to remove ''unessential items from their key chain.'' They were also advised that an insert was available that would ''result in the keys not hanging as low as in the past.''
—By The New York Times' Christopher Jensen