Guess what I got in the mail yesterday! Nope. But that was a good guess. The letter in my mailbox was a safety recall notice from General Motors, the manufacturer of the car I drive. Why should you care, you ask? I'm one of half a million people who have received the notice about the problem, but we represent less than one percent of the number of drivers affected.
In mid-March, I wrote a post for the Risk Factor blog discussing how GM belatedly got religion over its egregious failure to remedy a dangerous problem. Here’s how I described it then:
Millions of cars were equipped with a part that didn’t provide enough resistance to, say, a key ring swinging and rotating the car key so that the ignition was suddenly turned from the on (run) position to the off (accessory) position. There’s nothing to prevent that turn from happening except the tension provided by the spring in the part, known as a detent plunger.
What’s so bad about that? When the car suddenly turns off, power assist for steering and braking are lost, leaving a driver desperately struggling to keep the car from crashing.
That having been said, two things puzzled me about the recall notice I received:
1) The fact that it is now mid-September and the letter notes that the automaker expects “to have sufficient parts to begin repairs by October 1, 2014.” Only then, the letter says, should I contact my local GM dealer to arrange a service appointment. For those keeping score at home, that’s six months since I reported about GM’s CEO making a halfhearted, quasiadmission that the company had dragged its feet and let more than a dozen people die from sudden engine shutoffs. (According to the Wall Street Journal, the official death toll has risen from 13 to 19, but 125 wrongful death claims have been filed in court. Additionally, 445 claims have been made against a US $400 million fund GM has set up to cover such claims.) I can’t count the number of trips I’ve made between my home and the park-and-ride on my way to and from work, or the number of times I’ve picked my sons up from school, taken them on camping trips or to ballgames. GULP!
(Okay. I know what you’re thinking: If you wrote about this, you were the LAST person who should have been unaware of the danger! But that brings me to the second thing that caused me to cock my head in bewildered surprise.)
2) The GM models that had been linked to deaths because of faulty ignition switches were the Chevy Cobalt, Chevy HHR, Pontiac G5, Pontiac Pursuit, Pontiac Solstice, the Saturn Ion, and the Saturn Sky. But it’s now abundantly clear that the Chevrolet Malibu, the GM vehicle I drive, should have been on that list as well.
It didn’t take much digging to discover a few mind-blowing things. That list of seven GM models known to have problems with faulty ignition switches has now ballooned to 20. (Click here to go to the GM ignition recall safety information website; the front page contains a list of the models and affected model years.)
I called the Chevrolet Customer Assistance Center toll-free number provided on the recall notice. A representative told me that the problem with the 13 additional models was discovered in May. He indicated that, as of last week, the automaker had sent out 500,000 notices related to the ignition switch recall for the models added to the list at that point. Asked why it took four months to send me the piece of paper notifying me that my vehicle could potentially suffer sudden shutoff, he said GM has been sending letters around to the states and was just getting around to me. But I guess I should count myself lucky. The customer service representative revealed that although he couldn’t state categorically the exact number of affected vehicles, he estimates that it is “100 million, perhaps.” That’s a lot of letters—many of which have yet to be posted—and a lot of drivers unaware of the potentially deadly problem they encounter each time they get behind the wheel.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.