At least six people have died because of accidents involving faulty ignition switches in General Motors compacts, prompting the big automaker to recall 778,562 of its 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007 Pontiac G5 compacts.
GM said it knows of at least 22 accidents involving the ignition switches.
The nearly identical Cobalt and G5 were discontinued years ago but still can be found as cheap used vehicles for low-budget shoppers.
The recall is an enormous black eye for GM, just as it regains its footing and is rebuilding its image because the government no longer owns any of its stock and its new CEO is the first woman to head a big automaker.
Heavy key rings, loaded with other keys and keepsakes, can pull the switch mechanism out of the "run" position into "accessory" or "off," GM says, causing the cars to stall and, in some cases, preventing the airbags from deploying.
Stalled engines also shut off power steering and power brakes, making cars with those accessories harder to steer and stop.
GM says the switches may not have met the automaker's specifications when they were installed in the cars.
"This latest GM recall involves 22 crashes and six fatalities tied directly to a design issue. Those are the numbers reported thus far, but with over 750,000 affected vehicles it's possible more related incidents will be discovered now that it's a widely reported problem involving the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5" notes Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book:
The recall is extraordinary. Flaws that cause automakers to recall vehicles almost never kill people. In fact, there are many recalls in which no accidents or injuries are reported, and the recall is because the car company noticed a flaw by monitoring reports from dealers and complaints from owners.
Toyota's "sudden acceleration" recalls involved fatalities, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later determined that most cases involved driver error, or that the accelerator pedal got stuck open because incorrect floor mats were installed, able to trap the gas pedal in a wide-open position.
The infamous Ford Explorer/Firestone tire rollover cases killed a number of people due to flaws in the tires and in Ford's recommended tire pressures. Firestone recalled millions of tires and Ford replaced millions more Firestone on Explorers, to be sure the problem was solved.
Making the GM situation more tragic is that the problem of heavy key rings has been known at least since the 1960s. It was discussed in Popular Science magazine's popular fix-it column in which Gus Wilson, proprietor of the Model Garage, tacked baffling problems. He solved a customer's engine stalling by taking most of the keys off her ring.
GM knows of five front-impact crashes and six fatalities in crashes where the front airbags did not deploy, though it said all were high-speed crashes where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high in any case. It also said that alcohol use and not wearing seat belts figured in some of the cases.
Dealers will replace the ignition switch to remedy the problem, according to NHTSA, and GM urges owners to take non-essential items off of their key ring until the switch is replaced.