Fatal Flaws: Crisis in Auto Safety

Rebecca Ruiz, Danielle Ivory, Hilary Stout, Bill Vlasic, Hiroko Tabuchi, et al., Fatal Flaws: Crisis in Auto Safety. The New York Times, 17 February-30 December 2014. In this multipart, multiplatform series, “The New York Times has exposed missteps and delays by automakers and federal safety regulators in responding to deadly defects in automobiles during what has become a record year for recalls — more than 60 million in the United States in 2014. Overview: Spurred by a decade-old ignition-switch defect in millions of G.M. vehicles, the auto industry this year has issued more recalls involving old models — those made five or more years ago — than ever before. More than 60 million vehicles have been recalled in the United States, affecting the equivalent of one in five vehicles on the road, as automakers clean up years of defects that previously went undetected or ignored.”

The Families’ Ordeals: For more than a decade, General Motors engineers knew about a dangerous and faulty ignition switch in some models, but the automaker continued to tell accident victims’ families that it lacked evidence of any defect in their cars. In 2014, the company recalled 2.6 million vehicles for the faulty switch. G.M. originally tied 13 deaths to the defect, a count that has since risen to at least 67. The tally of deaths and injuries is expected to grow further. [Five articles and a video.]

G.M.’s Long Silence: An internal investigation of G.M.’s handling of the ignition defect showed years of missed opportunities to rectify the problem, which was detected even before the first affected cars came on the market. Moreover, the investigation found that the automaker’s legal department took actions that obscured the deadly flaw, both inside and outside the company. And until recently, the company’s board took a mostly hands-off approach on safety matters. [Five articles and a Graphic.]

Regulatory Lapses: An investigation by The New York Times found that on many major safety issues — including unintended acceleration in Toyotas, fires in Jeep fuel tanks and air bag ruptures in Hondas, as well as the G.M. ignition defect — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took a leading role only after the problems had become a crisis. The agency spends about as much on rating new cars — a marketing tool for automakers — as it does investigating defects. [Five articles and a Graphic.]

Tracing the Ignition Defect: At the heart of the G.M. recall of 2.6 million cars — Chevrolet Cobalts and other models — is a tiny metal pin called the detent plunger, which normally serves to hold the ignition in the “run” position. Faulty detent plungers have been tied to switching off the ignition while the car is in motion and causing the air bags to fail to deploy. [Three articles and a Graphic.]

The Flawed Air Bags: As questions mounted about G.M.’s handling of the ignition flaw, another case cast a spotlight on how the industry and regulators respond to safety problems. This time it was Honda and the air bag supplier Takata, which came under scrutiny over a defect that could cause air bags to explode. Because of delays in alerting the public, related defects in other automakers’ vehicles went undetected for years. Two deaths and more than 30 injuries have been linked to ruptures in Honda vehicles, and more than 14 million vehicles have been recalled. [Five articles.]

The Aftermath: Under increasing pressure to address its safety lapses, G.M. has announced more recalls, a compensation plan for victims and changes to its safety oversight structure. But the company continues to face public criticism, civil and criminal investigations, and mounting lawsuits. [Six articles.]