DETROIT — Safety advocates want to know why General Motors chose a defective ignition switch design for its small cars in 2001, even though an alternative was available that they say might have prevented 31 crashes and 13 deaths linked to the problem.
A letter to GM chief executive officer Mary Barra from Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, and Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen, says evidence has surfaced that GM had safer alternatives for the 2003 Saturn Ion.
GM chose for its small cars a design with a short spring and plunger that has allowed ignition keys to switch from the "run" to "accessory" position, cutting off power to the engine, airbags, and power steering and brakes.
It was not until this year that 2.6 million older-model small cars were recalled to address the problem with this design.
But there was a second design option with a longer spring and plunger with greater torque that made it much harder to move the ignition key.
"We call on you to publicly and openly produce all documents relevant to the decisionmaking on the selection of the lethal short detent spring and plunger switch in 2001, including documents showing the costs of the two switches. Who inside GM made these decisions, and at what level?" the letter asks Barra.
The letter condemns those who deliberately chose the weaker part and calls for the public release of the results of GM's internal investigation into why it took more than a decade to discover and address the safety problem.
"We now know, from engineering drawings and documents submitted to the U.S. Congress by General Motors, the company created two competing designs for the ignition switch on the 2003 Saturn Ion and later models, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and other recalled vehicles. But GM chose to use the ignition switch that would fail as your customers were driving innocently on the highway," the letter reads.
The rejected design "became the silent remedy GM subsequently introduced into production in late 2006 without changing the part number, thus secretly fixing the models made after that date," according to the letter, which cites evidence produced in conjunction with congressional investigations into the delayed recall.
The letter admonishes GM officials for not revealing the company's knowledge of the two designs to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration back in 2004, when there were accident reports in which airbags did not deploy in the small cars.
The stronger ignition switch was designed in September 2001, and the second, less robust design followed in October with a cross-reference to the earlier and sturdier version.
"The conclusion we draw from examining the two different designs of the ignition switches under consideration in 2001 is that General Motors picked a smaller and cheaper ignition switch that cost consumers their lives and saved General Motors money," the letter reads.