GM flaws, young drivers a deadly mix

By Jeff Green and Patrick G. Lee / Bloomberg News

Published Mar 29, 2014 at 12:01AM

Recall expanded — General Motors said Friday that it was expanding its ignition switch recall to an additional 971,000 cars worldwide that may have been repaired with defective switches — in addition to the 1.6 million cars, made in the 2007 model year and earlier already recalled.

The company realized it had sold thousands of defective switches to dealers and parts wholesalers that could have been used in newer cars that never had the defect. The expansion of the recall comes as GM faces increasing pressure from federal regulators and lawmakers to explain why it took more than a decade to address the ignition switch problems.

— News York Times News Service

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — When Bill Trautwein offered to buy his daughter a car to drive to college classes, she went for the blue one— a used 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that matched the color on the Florida Gators uniform her big brother wore on the way to two national football championships.

Sarah Trautwein was driving the car on a June morning in 2009 when she left the road, struck a tree and died.

While Bill Trautwein says he assumed his daughter had fallen asleep at the wheel, General Motors’ recall of models including Sarah’s has made him reconsider: The ignition switches in these cars can inadvertently click off, GM said last month, cutting power to the engine and airbags, steering and brakes. A driver would find herself behind a hard-to-muscle wheel of a coasting car, with suddenly stiffer brakes.

Sarah, then 19 years old, probably wouldn’t have known what to do, Trautwein said. “She was a young driver,” he said. “It would have probably freaked her out.”

Years after fatal accidents involving Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other recalled models, a grim picture is taking form. The now-recalled vehicles were predominantly entry-level cars marketed to first-time drivers. These same drivers, according to safety and auto experts, may have been among the least prepared to react to a sudden loss of power.

“It’s a young person’s car,” said Bill Visnic, senior editor at auto website Edmunds.com and a veteran of more than 20 years of vehicle test drives. “When you turn off the ignition and you lose power steering, especially, it’s a very panicky feeling.”

GM, in announcing its 1.6 million-vehicle global recall, linked the ignition flaw to 12 deaths. More broadly, hundreds of deaths have been reported to regulators in crashes of the recalled models in which airbags failed to deploy. Now, plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking to establish whether some of those deadly events may have started when an ignition key was rattled or bumped out of position. The prospective examples that are emerging span the country and include the old and the young, but strikingly the young.

A description of Sarah Trautwein’s accident appeared in a motion filed on March 24 by Texas attorney Bob Hilliard in federal court in Corpus Christi. The motion, part of a lawsuit against GM for economic damages on behalf of two plaintiffs and a proposed group, listed eight possible victims of malfunctioning GMs — seven of whom, including Trautwein, were 25 years old or younger.

The fate of such drivers promises to come to the fore next week as Senate and House committee members grill GM executives over why the company didn’t mount its recall sooner. Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive officer and the mother of two teenagers, is due to testify. Barra, who has apologized for GM’s delay, has said the events hit home with her as a mother. The families of several young people who died in crashes involving the recalled cars have said they plan to attend the hearings.

“As we’ve previously said, we deeply regret the circumstances that led to the recall,” GM said in an emailed statement Thursday. “We have launched an internal review to give us an unvarnished report on what happened. We will hold ourselves accountable and improve our processes so our customers do not experience this again.”

GM has told regulators that some employees knew of the faulty switches as early as 2001. In 2005, GM said in a statement that drivers should be able to respond to a power loss in a Cobalt by restarting the engine in neutral and proceeding on their way.

For many drivers, it wasn’t so simple. Around that same time, according to court documents, GM dealers were receiving complaints from owners whose Cobalts, Ions and other models were shutting down unexpectedly. Many came from parents who said their young drivers had brought their cars to a halt, often in the middle of an intersection or highway. Others said their kids had crashed into ditches, snowbanks or other cars.

The recalls demand a new round of questions for parents who have already lived for years with the soul-searching that the loss of a child brings.

“You can’t replace her. What can I do?” said Trautwein, a 53-year-old retired military pilot, whose daughter was killed on her trip between their home in Lexington, S.C., and the nearby University of South Carolina in Columbia. Referring to new lawsuits against GM, he said: “Money isn’t the object. But hopefully it stops someone else from dying.”

The recalled models emerged during a period of severe cost-cutting in the years before GM’s 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, according to several people with knowledge of the company at the time. GM designed Cobalts and Ions to target first-time buyers, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, a car information website. It priced them to compete with Toyota’s Corolla small car and the Honda Civic, he said.

“Their audience was aging,” Brauer said. The antidote, he said, was to build “attractive, small, entry-level cars that younger people buy.”

Soon after the cars hit the market, GM’s dealers began receiving complaints about unintentional shut-offs, including at least 16 from parents. A Colorado woman told a dealership that her 19-year-old son’s Cobalt stalled as he entered an offramp at 70 miles an hour, sending him crashing into a ditch. He hit his head and lived.

The complaints, from March 2005 through April 2009, were among 90 dealer accounts that were read into a deposition in a wrongful-death lawsuit in Georgia that GM settled in September.

“Customer states how the car shut off on daughter at 55 miles per hour yesterday. Customer states now scared to put her daughter in the car,” read an Ohio dealer’s summary read into the deposition. Another, from a Georgia mother who complained of stalls: “Customer is begging for a new car. She is too afraid the car will do it again while her daughter drives it.”

GM countered concerns by asking dealers to tell customers to take heavy items from their key rings, lest the extra weight inadvertently turn the key. Several engineers deposed in the Georgia lawsuit testified that even if these models’ brakes and steering lost power, the cars could be maneuvered.

“The Cobalt is still controllable” if it loses power inadvertently, Alan Adler, a GM spokesman, said in a 2005 statement issued after two newspaper auto reviewers reported unexpected shutdowns. “The engine can be restarted after shifting to neutral.”

Adler declined a request to make additional comments beyond those GM has offered on the recall.

While several auto-safety experts and driving instructors said younger drivers would be particularly challenged by the recalled models’ power losses, others said the scenario could jar any driver. Very few drivers would easily adapt to a car that loses power on the highway, said Allen Robinson, who has been training driving instructors for 40 years.

“It’s going to be a real problem and most people are not going to know how to deal with it,” said Robinson, the CEO of the American Drivers Traffic Safety Education Association, which represents traffic safety educators and manages the National Student Safety Program. “These sorts of mechanical failures are so infrequent that you can’t really prepare people for them.”