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GM's safety crisis deepens with Camaro switch recall

By Bernie Woodall and Paul Lienert


DETROIT — General Motors Co. recalled 511,528 Chevrolet Camaros on Friday for an ignition switch problem similar to the defect linked to at least 13 deaths in Chevrolet Cobalts and other models. GM said it was aware of minor accidents and no fatalities from the Camaro. It said the switch defect in the new recall was not related to the problem in the Cobalts.

A driver’s knee could bump the current-model Camaro’s key fob and move the ignition switch out of the “run” position, causing the engine to shut off, the company said.

The earlier recall was triggered by an ignition switch failure in the Chevy Cobalt and other small GM cars, in which a bump of the key fob could turn off the engine, disabling power steering and airbags.

That defect, first observed by GM engineers in 2002, was not reported to consumers for years, and prompted Chief Executive Mary Barra in recent months to overhaul the way GM handles safety recalls.

The recall of Camaros bloats the number of GM vehicles summoned back for switch-related problems to more than 3.1 million. It also intensifies scrutiny on the automaker as Barra prepares to return to Congress next week to provide additional testimony on the earlier recall of Chevrolet Cobalt and other GM small cars.

Barra will be joined by Anton Valukas, chairman of GM’s outside law firm Jenner & Block, who conducted a months-long investigation that detailed deep flaws in GM’s internal decision-making process.

The so-called Valukas report, made public last week, triggered the departures of 15 GM employees, including several high-ranking executives in the legal, engineering and public policy groups.

GM’s 3.1 million switch-related recalls are a fraction of the record 16.5 million cars the automaker has recalled this year in 38 separate actions. That’s about the same number of cars the entire auto industry expects to sell this year in the United States.

The new recall, affecting Camaros of model years 2010 to 2014, is not like the one involving older-model Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion cars, the company said.

“It’s not at all related to the Cobalt,” GM safety spokesman Alan Adler said in an interview. “The condition here is a switchblade key” in which a key pops out of the key fob when a small button is depressed.

The problem with the Camaro switch “is an external bumping issue,” Adler said. The problem, he said, involves “an atypical seating situation. If you sit somewhat normally and don’t pull your seat way up, you are not going to have this problem.”

But Cobalt and Ion had a similar issue involving the location of the switch on the steering column and the tendency of some drivers to bump that switch out of “run” position.

While the switches in the Camaro are different in design from those in the Cobalt and Ion, some of the key issues are similar: When the key fob is bumped and the switch is moved out of the run position, the engine can turn off, causing loss of power steering and failure of airbags to deploy in a crash.

GM said it was aware of three crashes causing four minor injuries linked to the issue in Camaro, a sporty two-door car.

Adler said the air bags did not deploy in those crashes and that he didn’t know the details about the crashes or when they occurred.

Adler said GM was advising Camaro owners to “drive the car and be aware of this” problem.

“GM said it’s not the same problem, but it’s a first cousin,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group founded in 1970 by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union. GM “should have recalled” the Camaro earlier to correct the issue, Ditlow said.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is responsible for overseeing safety defects and recalls, had not posted an official Camaro recall notice as of mid-morning Friday, but the agency has received and posted several complaints from consumers.

A complaint dated May 6 on the 2014 Camaro noted “knee bumped key, engine turned off at 60 mph.” There were no injuries or deaths reported in that incident.

The NHTSA has been criticized by lawmakers for not acting more swiftly to recall GM small cars with defective switches.

The agency has awarded five-star safety ratings — the highest level — to the 2012-2014 Camaro in front, side and rollover crashes.

“The Camaro ignition system meets all GM engineering specifications and is unrelated to the ignition system used in Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars included in the ignition switch recall,” GM said in a statement.

Adler said GM discovered the issue in the Camaro as it was testing a wide range of its 2014-2016 models after the widely publicized small-car ignition switch recall.

He said it would send letters to Camaro owners soon, advising them to visit dealers to get a new key made.

Jeff Boyer, appointed to the new position of vice president for GM global safety earlier this year in response to the small-car ignition switch recall, said the Camaro recall was a quick action that is “the new norm for product safety at GM,” according to the press statement.

GM shares rose slightly at midday to $35.58.

(Additional reporting by Thyagaraju Adinarayan in Bangalore; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Bernadette Baum)