Deadly GM Defect Has Some Consumers ‘Petrified’
Life + Money

Deadly GM Defect Has Some Consumers ‘Petrified’

REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Will Soto and his fiancée were in the hospital celebrating the birth of their son when a news item on the television caught their attention. Turned out that Soto’s car, a 2003 Saturn Ion, was one of the more than a million vehicles recalled by General Motors for a faulty ignition switch.

The defect has been linked to 12 known deaths, and GM reportedly had knowledge of the problem for more than a decade before disclosing it. “I’m a new, first-time parent, and now I’m just wondering whether it’s safe to put my kid in this car,” says Soto, 32, a security investigator in Henderson, Nev. “It’s upsetting.”

He and his fiancée ultimately decided they didn’t feel safe putting the baby in their car. It’s been parked in their garage since the family got home from the hospital, and they’re sharing her Toyota to get around town.

Related: How a Watchdog Blew the Lid off the GM Recall Scandal

Soto says he’s been so absorbed with the new baby that he hasn’t had time to figure out what to do about the car. While he’ll certainly take it to the dealership to get it fixed, he also plans on selling it and buying a new vehicle as soon as possible. “I just don’t even know if it’s going to be safe after it’s fixed.”

Soto’s not the only one worried about his GM vehicle. The ignition switch defect affects more than 1.6 million cars manufactured between 2003-2007 (although we don’t know how many of these cars are still on the road). (Separately, the company has also issued recalls for another 1.5 million cars related to reports of engine compartment fires, although those recalls are not associated with any deaths or injuries.)

GM’s CEO Mary Barra has apologized for the way the automaker has handled the recall and promised to change its processes for handling such decisions. On Tuesday, Barra named Jeff Boyer to the newly created position of Vehicle Safety Chief. Several lawsuits have been filed in connection with the recall, and investigations are being conducted by the Justice Department, two congressional committees, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The affected cars include some 2003-2007 Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and Saturns. GM has set up a dedicated website with information about the recalls, and customer service phone numbers dedicated to answering consumer questions. In cars with the defective part, the key can move from the “run” position to the “accessory” position, shutting off the car’s electrical power to components like the front airbags and power steering.

Owners of recalled cars will receive a letter in the mail notifying them when the replacement parts will be available at their local dealer. Parts will begin arriving at dealers in April, but given the scope of the recall, it could take through the summer and early fall for the company to build and ship enough parts to fix every affected car, says GM spokesman Jim Cain. “At least in the early days it’s going to take some time, and we hope people can be as patient with us as possible.”

Related: U.S. Safety Watchdog Says 303 Deaths linked to Recalled GM Cars

In the meantime, the company is advising drivers of affected cars to keep only the key in the ignition, and remove any key chains, additional keys or key fobs attached to it. “That will make the vehicle safe to drive and address the concern,” Cain says. “It seems to have been influenced by weight on the key.”

However, not everyone agrees that such steps will make the cars safe to drive.

“There really is only one piece of moral advice that GM should be giving anyone, and that’s ‘Do not drive these cars.’” says Robert Hilliard, an attorney with the Texas firm Hilliard Munoz Gonzalez, who has filed a class action suit against GM, and represents the family of victims killed in a Wisconsin crash involving a 2005 Cobalt allegedly due to a faulty ignition switch. “GM cannot guarantee that you won’t be driving the car and drift into head-on traffic because you no longer have control of the vehicle.”

GM has publicly promised that it will provide loaner cars to owners of recalled vehicles until their cars have been repaired. However, numerous posts by consumers on GM’s Facebook page report that some local dealers are not honoring the deal, and Hilliard says many of his clients have described the same thing. Cain says that “most” GM dealers are participating in the loaner program, and that car owners who run into problems should call the customer care line for addition assistance.

Related: GM Recalls More Cars, Promises Intense Review

Penny Samples Brooks, 52, of Kingsport, Tenn., says that she has experienced the problem first-hand when her engine shut down while she was driving on the highway about six weeks ago. “It was the scariest thing ever, the steering became almost impossible,” she says. “I was able to make it over to the emergency lane, and by the grace of God, I’m still alive.”

After her husband had a similar experience, Sample Brooks went online and found many people reporting similar problems with their GM vehicles. Then, she heard about the recall. “It petrified me,” she says.

Samples Brooks, who says she does not drive with any additional keys on her keychain, was able to secure a loaner car from her local dealer after several conversations with a GM customer care representative.

Despite that, Samples Brooks says the entire experience has left her frustrated and worried that the car has lost any residual value that it had before this recall. (The car’s worth just over $4,000, according to Kelly Blue Book.)

“The sad part is we are stuck with these cars because nobody else wants them,” she says. “It’s just not right.”

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