Their lives weren’t worth 57 cents to GM

April 8, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the terrible toll from corporate negligence at General Motors--and recounts her own experience with the continuing recall runaround.

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.

Families of car crash victims sit behind GM executives at a Congressional hearing on the recall delay
Families of car crash victims sit behind GM executives at a Congressional hearing on the recall delay

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.

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.

THERE WERE corporate irresponsibility at almost every turn in this tragic story.

According to documents obtained by Reuters, GM engineers debated via e-mail in 2005 about whether to change the ignition switch. One e-mail claimed the change would have cost an extra 90 cents per car and additional tooling costs of $400,000.

"In the e-mail exchange," Reuters reported, "one of the engineers, John Hendler, said his team was prepared to continue using a switch that was made by Delphi Automotive and approved by GM, even though Delphi told the automaker in early 2002 that the switch did not meet GM's performance specifications." Hendler recommended waiting for a new switch until 2009. Another GM executive, Lori Queen, who had responsibility for the development of GM's small cars, responded, "I'm not sure it's ok to wait."

Evidently it was.

During later deliberations on the matter--which likewise ended without a recall--GM was likely trying to save more than just the cost of replacing a part. Revealing the extent of its irresponsibility and blatant disregard for human life might have affected filing for bankruptcy and $50 billion federal bailout in 2009.

At the time, the Obama administration applauded the auto giant as an American job creator that was "worth saving." As Obama said in a 2009 speech, "[I]f we can carry one another through this difficult time and do what must be done, then we will look back and say that this was the moment when the American auto industry shed its old ways, marched into the future, remade itself and once more became an engine of opportunity and prosperity not only in Detroit, not only in our Midwest, but all across America."

GM climbed back into the black, in large part by cutting its workforce still further and demanding more concessions from the United Auto Workers. Now, the "remade" company--just like the old one--is killing people.

On top of that, the bankruptcy could get GM off the hook legally. GM became a "new" company in July 2009 when it emerged from bankruptcy protection. It left behind billions in bad debts, including product liability claims for all crashes that happened before that time.

IF GM were a human being, it could be charged with murder--though treating corporations like human beings only seems to apply when the subject is campaign finance.

And if GM is guilty of murder, then the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is an accomplice--since the federal agency failed to act at every step of the way.

According to a memo released by the House subcommittee investigating the GM recall, the NHTSA decided not to look into problems with GM cars, despite the fact that in 2007, its investigators reported four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 other reports showing that the defect disabled air bags. As the New York Times reported:

In a presentation dated November 17, 2007, the safety agency's investigators reported to its Office of Defects Investigation on the fatal crashes, as well as broad range of complaints and other reports about cars shutting off. "The panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation," the House memo said.

Three years--and more reports of air bags not deploying--later, the NHTSA reached the same conclusion: There wasn't enough evidence to warrant an investigation.

The fact that GM and the NHTSA reached many of the same conclusions is hardly shocking, considering how seamlessly safety regulators transition into jobs consulting for the auto bosses. For example, former NHTSA administrator David Strickland is now a partner at the corporate law firm Venable, where his expertise includes "regulatory" issues. Former NHTSA employees can also be found in Toyota's Washington offices.

In many ways, the synchronized responses of the watchdog and the watched is built into the federal regulatory system, which largely relies on the auto industry to come forward with its own problems.

I DRIVE one of GM's recalled cars. It was my father's car originally, and when I read about the ignition problem, all I could think of was the sheer cliffs on the twisting, mountain roads he drove almost every day. It makes me sick to my stomach.

When my recall notice arrived in the mail, it said replacement parts were unavailable for now. In fact, it read a lot like the company's notice to its dealers in 2005 quoted above, warning drivers to take everything off their key chain--including the key fob (with the buttons for automatic door locks and such) that GM attached to the key in the first place. So now drivers are responsible for not weighing their keys down with the crap GM attached?

The problem isn't extra weight on the key chain--it's a defective ignition switch. And just like it rolled the dice with people's lives in the decade before the recall, GM is still playing cat and mouse with customers today who are worried about driving around with the threat of the their cars turning off without warning.

The materials sent to those of us with recalled cars don't mention the possibility of temporary replacement vehicles. But GM's directions to their dealers mention it. According to documents buried deep in attachments to the recall notice provided on the NHTSA website, GM advised its dealers that it could provide rentals or loaners to customers with recalled cars.

"For situations where a customer may be concerned about operating their vehicle and is requesting alternate transportation, dealership service management is empowered to place the customer into a courtesy vehicle until parts are available to repair the vehicle," GM wrote. "It's like a secret loaner car," said Rep. DeGette.

When I called to inquire about the recall, and whether I could get a loaner--as the national GM office had informed me--a representative at the dealership kept repeating that replacement parts weren't available. I asked whether the loaner was only available for when they had the part, not when the car was dangerous in the meanwhile. I was put on hold.

I'm told a manager will get back to me.

GM's greed really does know no bounds. It should be held responsible for endangering millions of people who have driven or been passengers in these cars. Instead, the federal government is awarding GM with bailouts--or looking the other way when it produces dangerous vehicles. The time is past for congressional hearings that don't produce results.

Sarah Trautwein was killed in 2009 when her 2005 Cobalt went off the road and crashed into a tree. Her family is now part of a proposed class-action lawsuit against GM. For years, Sarah's family thought she fell asleep at the wheel. As Phil Trautwein, Sarah's brother, told the Today Show:

It's hard because we thought we had an answer, and we were coping with the fact that she died peacefully while she was sleeping at the wheel, and now for us as a family, we have to think about: What was her last thoughts? Was she fighting for her life? Was she trying to steer straight? Was she trying to get out of the car? For us, that's something that we'll never know, and that's something that GM, in a way, took away from us, so for us, it's tough.

"There are still 2.5 million of these automobiles," says Sarah's mother Renee. "I want GM to get on breaking news, [and] tell everyone to take their cars [in] now. Don't drive them anymore."

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