Exclusive: GM says recalled cars safe, but has not tested for knee-bump danger

Thu Apr 17, 2014 5:27pm EDT
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By Julia Edwards and Eric Beech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General Motors says that cars being recalled because of faulty ignition switches can be driven safely before repairs, based on more than 80 tests, but the automaker has not addressed a problem long known to potentially shut off the engine: a simple bump from a driver's knee.

Safety advocates and engineers say the lack of testing for this factor undermines GM's claims that the cars are safe. As early as 2004, GM engineers complained that the ignition switch could be turned off if the key was bumped by a knee.

A Texas judge on Thursday allowed the unrepaired cars to stay on the road, over the objection of safety advocates and plaintiffs lawyers who said there is no way, short of repairs, to ensure the ignition switch would not slip out of the run position, turning off the motor and disabling power steering, power brakes and airbags. At least 13 people have died in such incidents.

GM, including CEO Mary Barra, has repeatedly said the 2.6 million cars it recalled for ignition switch problems are safe to drive, as long as they are driven with only one key on the key ring.

It is not clear if a driver's knee could still bump the ignition out of the "run" position when only a bare key is being used rather than a key ring with additional keys and possibly other things attached.

GM in court filings in the Texas case said it made more than 80 tests of driving with a bare key. It described tests driving over a pothole four feet wide by seven feet long by five inches deep at 25 miles per hour, driving up and over a 4-inch high simulated median at an angle and locking up the brakes while coming off the median, and driving a 4-mile loop "with a series of bumps, swells, railroad crossings" and other hazards at posted speeds of 25 to 75 miles per hour, for instance.

The filing described tests in which external forces bumped the car, rather than a jolt inside. There is no indication of a test for knee bumps.

Asked about the issue, GM told Reuters that none of the tests included a direct force on the key from inside the car, such as the driver's knee.   Continued...

General Motors CEO Mary Barra appears onstage during a launch event for new Chevrolet cars before the New York Auto Show in New York April 15, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri