Nearly nine months after General Motors began recalling millions of its cars for a dangerously defective ignition switch, almost half of the vehicles still have not been fixed.
A spokesman for the automaker said it was increasing its outreach to owners through social media and a new call center staffed with 72 employees dedicated to contacting those who have not scheduled repairs.
But even owners who requested repairs months ago have been waiting, with dealers managing wait-lists and dozens of drivers writing to federal regulators in recent weeks asking why it was taking so long. Some of them are also raising safety concerns about the drawn-out timetable, as a recent fatal accident here suggests.
One of the unrepaired vehicles was a red 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt that crashed here the night of Oct 9, killing its 25-year-old driver, Brittany Alfarone. Her mother, Dierdre Betancourt, said she had tried to fix the car twice, but two dealers turned her away.
Now the police are investigating the single-car accident for possible ties to the ignition defect, which can cause power to cut out in a moving car, shutting down airbags and impeding power steering and brakes.
A few weeks before the accident, Betancourt said, the car had done precisely that, shutting off after hitting a bump while in the middle lane on a busy parkway in the Bronx.
A spokesman for the Yonkers Police Department said the car had been so badly damaged in the wreck that killed Alfarone that it was unclear whether data from its black box could be salvaged to help determine what had happened.
GM faces multiple investigations, including a federal criminal inquiry, over its decade-long delay in ordering a recall of the cars with the defective switch, which has been linked to 30 deaths. But less attention has been paid to the company’s oversight of the recall itself and the critical task of fixing the 2.36 million cars — of the 2.6 million originally recalled — that it estimates are still in use.
While GM says it has all the parts to fix every car — produced ahead of schedule by its supplier Delphi Automotive — just 1.26 million, or 53%, of those cars have been repaired as of last week. The average completion rate of repairs on recalled cars in the United States is 75% over an average of 18 months, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The recall repair rates on older vehicles tend to be lower.
The long timetable for the ignition switch repairs — the replacement parts had to be manufactured and the first repairs did not come until two months after the recall was announced in February — highlights a continuing problem with recalls. Even in highly publicised cases, the fix can be elusive, and while some owners remain ignorant of the issue, even those who try to act can be left vulnerable.
GM says it has provided more than 89,000 loaner cars, amounting to less than 4% of the recalled cars on the road.
GM partly attributes the large number of unrepaired cars to inaction by owners. “People are very busy, and it can be a challenge to find the time to take their vehicle in to be repaired,” said a spokesman, James R Cain. However some dealers have had a hard time keeping up with demand. Freehold Buick in Freehold, New Jersey, was so deluged with ignition switch repair requests that it dedicated a full day exclusively to making the repair, cutting the wait-list of about 100 people in half, according to the dealership’s service manager, Bill Marter. He said the dealership turned it into a party, offering a rock band and a barbecue. “We knocked out 50 repairs that day,” he said. “If we hadn’t done that, we’d be way more backed up.”
A few vehicle owners who had a replacement switch installed reported that they were still having stalling or other ignition problems, such as keys that couldn’t be removed. The New York Times found 43 such complaints to the highway safety administration since August.
GM has vigorously fought efforts to order all the affected cars off the road until they are repaired. This spring it successfully blocked a proposed court order that would have required the company to advise owners to park their cars until they were fixed. The judge in the case, Nelva Gonzales Ramos of United States District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, said federal regulators at NHTSA were better equipped to decide whether such a measure was necessary. The safety agency declined to impose it.
A few days ago, Betancourt invited a reporter into her home, a small, immaculately kept apartment in the back of a low ranch-style house, about a mile and a half from the scene of the accident.
Candles glowed by a large poster board with photos of Brittany at all stages of her short life — a pretty young woman posing with a giant turtle on vacation in Hawaii, a chubby-cheeked toddler, a school girl decorating a Christmas tree.
After the dealer told her the recall problems had been taken care of, Betancourt had assumed the car was OK, she said, and her daughter continued to drive it. A few weeks before the accident, though, things began to go wrong. One day, Betancourt said she and her daughter were driving in the middle lane of a major thoroughfare in the Bronx when they hit a small bump in the road. Alfarone was driving. “All of a sudden my daughter’s going, ‘Ma, there’s no power,’ ” Betancourt recalled. “She turned the key and realized the car had completely shut off. Thank God we did not get hit.”
Joseph Brini was driving behind Alfarone the night of the accident. He said it seemed as if the driver was wrestling with the car. “My feeling is she was trying to get some control,” he said. “The poor girl had no control of the car.”
The vehicle slammed into a guardrail and erupted in flames. The county medical examiner listed the cause of death as thermal burns, asphyxiation because of carbon monoxide and laceration of the liver, a condition that some auto engineering experts say suggests, based on Alfarone’s slight build, the airbag did not deploy.
At the funeral, Alfarone’s boyfriend, Richard Peña, embraced Betancourt. “I told her that car wasn’t right.”