Make us your home page

Safety advocates: Why did GM choose weaker ignition switch design?

GM created two ignition switch designs for the ’03 Saturn Ion and later models such as this ’05 Chevrolet Cobalt, critics say. 

Associated Press

GM created two ignition switch designs for the ’03 Saturn Ion and later models such as this ’05 Chevrolet Cobalt, critics say. 

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.

Safety advocates: Why did GM choose weaker ignition switch design? 04/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 7:16pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. 'Road to Nowhere' is back: Next phase of Suncoast Parkway coming


    Despite intense public opposition and dubious traffic projections, the Florida Department of Transportation has announced that construction of the toll road known as "Suncoast 2" is expected to start in early 2018.

    The Suncoast Parkway ends at U.S. 98 just south of Citrus County. For years residents have opposed extending the toll road, a project dubbed the "Suncoast 2" into Citrus County. But state officials recently announced that the Suncoast 2 should start construction in early 2018. [Stephen J. Coddington  |  TIMES]
  2. A sports rout on Wall Street


    NEW YORK — Sporting goods retailers can't shake their losing streak.

  3. Grocery chain Aldi hosting hiring event in Brandon Aug. 24


    BRANDON — German grocery chain Aldi is holding a hiring event for its Brandon store Aug. 24. It is looking to fill store associate, shift manager and manager trainee positions.

  4. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik backs film company pursuing global blockbusters


    TAMPA — Jeff Vinik's latest investment might be coming to a theater near you.

    Jeff Vinik, Tampa Bay Lightning owner, invested in a new movie company looking to appeal to a global audience. | [Times file photo]
  5. Trigaux: Look to new Inc. 5000 rankings for Tampa Bay's future heavyweights


    There's a whole lotta fast-growing private companies here in Tampa Bay. Odds are good you have not heard of most of them.


    Kyle Taylor, CEO and founder of The Penny Hoarder, fills a glass for his employees this past Wednesday as the young St. Petersburg personal advice business celebrates its landing at No. 25 on the 2017 Inc. 5000 list of the fastest growing private companies in the country. Taylor, still in his 20s, wins kudos from executive editor Alexis Grant for keeping the firm's culture innovative. The business ranked No. 32 last year. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]