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Though just recently coming to public light, GM has been battling an ignition switch defect in its Chevy Cobalt and other other vehicles since at least 2001.  The defect permits the ignition to shut down the vehicle while in motion, which not only cuts off power steering and braking, but turns off the air bag… eliminating a critical safety feature during a period of crisis.

Though GM has only admitted 12 deaths related to this defect, a new analysis of federal safety data suggests that 303 people have died after their air bags failed to deploy for just two of the vehicle models recalled.

To date, GM has recalled more than 1.6 million vehicles, including:

  • 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt
  • 2003-2007 Saturn Ion
  • 2007 Pontiac G5
  • 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR
  • 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice
  • 2007 Saturn Sky

The study was commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety after federal regulators at NHTSA claimed they did not initiate an investigation because they did not see a defect trend.

The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark

Gabe Nelson at Automotive News has called NHTSA “the watchdog that didn’t bark“.  He notes that since the recall of 1.6 million of its vehicle, GM has – at least publicly – appeared contrite, but asks why federal regulators have been so silent about their own response.

One reason: NHTSA is overworked, underfunded and understaffed.  Administrators have strong ties to the automotive industry and rely on the automakers to submit accurate data to permit NHTSA to make important investigation decisions.

Here, there appears to be little question that GM hid crucial information from NHTSA safety experts.  In fact, GM is under investigation by the Department of Justice over its failure to promptly notify regulators of the defect and its handling of the recall.

Let’s hope the spotlight pointed squarely at GM and NHTSA over the handling of this defect will encourage the agency to be more responsive in identifying safety hazards and encourage automakers to be more forthcoming in providing information to the agency.  Your life just might depend on it.

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© Copyright 2014 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.

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