Federal regulators refused to investigate the faulty ignition problems of General Motors cars — even after receiving more than 260 complaints about them leading to cars shutting off unexpectedly over the past 11 years, The New York Times reports
The ignition-switch problems have spurred a worldwide recall of more than 1.6 million cars announced by the Detroit-based automaker this week. GM had expanded the recall
from an initial 779,000 vehicles.
The defects have been linked to 31 incidents — including 13 front-seat deaths that may have resulted because airbags did not operate properly, GM said.
The vehicles affected are Saturn Ion compact autos from the 2003 through 2007 model years, Chevy HHR mid-sized vehicles from 2006 and 2007, and the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars from 2006 and 2007.
GM no longer makes any of the models, which have had problems for 10 years, the Times reports.
The newspaper analyzed 8,000 consumer complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency charged with addressing such matters. It found that the agency had received an average of two complaints per month since February 2003.
The Times zeroed in on the over 260 complaints that concerned moving cars that stalled unexpectedly. The most recent complaint was filed on Thursday.
However, NHTSA repeatedly responded that the complaints lacked sufficient evidence to warrant a full safety investigation, the Times reports.
"At this time, there is insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation," the agency told former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in a December 2010 letter quoted by the Times.
Frank, who retired last year, had written the agency on behalf of a constituent whose 2006 Cobalt stalled repeatedly, the Times reports. It told Frank that it reached its conclusion after reviewing its database of complaints on the issue.
“The ability to spot trends is a huge issue, and NHTSA has not got it under control by any means,” Joan Claybrook, who headed the agency during the Jimmy Carter White House, told the Times.
But the agency's chief counsel, Kevin Vincent, said that complaints must pass a legal test of "unreasonable risk to safety" to warrant an investigation.
"That term 'reasonable' is a legal term, which is very elastic and means a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts," he told the Times. "Each case is a different fact pattern."
Last week, NHTSA sent GM 107 questions, demanding why it took the carmaker so long to recall the vehicles, the Times reports.
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