In the meantime, GM customers, most unaware of the switch problem, kept buying the compact cars. Sales topped 200,000 in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
From 2004 to 2006, multiple GM committees with convoluted acronyms considered fixes without a sense of urgency, Valukas wrote. Crashes and deaths mounted, catching attention from company lawyers and engineers. Yet no one at GM figured out that the bad switches were disabling the air bags.
Fixes were rejected as too costly. Instead the company sent a bulletin to dealers explaining the problem and telling them to warn customers not to dangle too many objects from their key chains. GM elected not to use the word “stall” in the bulletin, saying that was a “hot” word that could indicate there was a more serious safety issue.
A Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper named Keith Young proved better at diagnosing the problem than GM employees, the report said. While investigating a 2006 Cobalt crash that killed two teen-age girls, he checked the wreckage and found the ignition switch in the “accessory” position; the air bags weren’t deployed. Going further, Young found five complaints to government safety regulators about Cobalt engines stalling while being driven. Three drivers reported their legs touched the ignition or key chain before the engine quit.
Young also found the 2006 GM bulletin to dealers that detailed the switch problem. He determined that the Cobalt’s ignition slipped into accessory before the crash, causing the air bag failure. A team from Indiana University that probed the crash in 2007 also made the connection. “Yet GM personnel did not,” Valukas wrote.
They might have — if they read Young’s report. An electronic copy was in GM’s files in 2007, but no engineer investigating the switches reported seeing it until 2014, according to Valukas.
THE SECRET FIX
In 2007, John Sprague, an engineer working with GM’s liability defense team, began tracking Cobalt air bag problems. He noticed a pattern and theorized a link to the ignitions. He also saw that the air bag problems stopped after model year 2007 and wondered if the ignition switch had been changed, Valukas wrote.