US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx asked the department’s inspector-general on Friday to review whether the government’s auto safety agency had properly investigated reports of ignition problems in recalled General Motors (GM) cars that have been linked to 12 deaths.
Foxx said he ordered the investigation “out of an abundance of caution.”
Several safety watchdogs have said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should have ordered GM to recall the cars as early as 2007. The automaker has said it first learned of the defect in 2001, before the cars went into production.
“At the present time, we are not aware of any information to suggest that NHTSA failed to properly carry out its safety mission based on the data available to it and the processes it followed,” Foxx said.
Last month, GM said it was recalling 1.6 million 2005 to 2007 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2003 to 2007 Saturn Ions and other models due to a faulty ignition switch that could cause the engine to turn off while driving, making the car harder to steer and brake and disabling airbags.
GM has said the defect has been linked to 12 deaths and 31 accidents.
NHTSA is part of the US Department of Transportation (DOT), and US DOT Inspector-General Calvin Scovell will conduct the investigation. Foxx said in a memo to Scovell that he has also asked NHTSA and DOT’s Office of General Counsel to conduct a joint review.
The safety agency itself is investigating GM’s handling of the recall, and the US Congress is scheduled to hold hearings on the matter next month. The US Attorney in Manhattan has opened a criminal probe of GM.
Meanwhile, the families of three teenagers killed or injured in a 2006 car crash are suing GM, alleging that the company was negligent in designing its small cars and committed fraud by not disclosing facts about the defects.
Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Rademaker, 15, both of Wisconsin, died after the crash involving a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt compact car with a faulty ignition switch.
The car’s driver, Megan Phillips, suffered permanent brain damage, according to a statement from the families’ law firm.
GM failed to warn the teens of a dangerous defect and misrepresented the car’s safety, lawyer Robert Hilliard said in a statement.
The firm said the lawsuit was filed on Friday in Hennepin County, Minnesota, where the car was purchased.
The crash was among the first blamed on the faulty ignition switches. Last month, GM recalled 1.6 million Cobalts and other small cars worldwide to replace the switches. The company has admitted knowing about the problem for at least 11 years before taking the action.
The switches can slip out of the run position, shutting down the engine while the cars are being driven. That can cut off power-assisted steering and brakes and cause drivers to lose control. It also disables the air bags if there is a crash.