Federal safety regulators expand ignition switch and air bag probe to Chrysler

  • Article by: TOM KRISHER , Associated Press
  • Updated: June 18, 2014 - 4:30 PM

DETROIT — A U.S. safety agency has opened two investigations into Chrysler minivans and SUVs as part of a widening inquiry into air bag and ignition switch problems across the U.S. auto industry.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began asking automakers and parts suppliers for information on the interrelated issues after General Motors recalled 2.6 million small cars with faulty ignition switches earlier this year. The switches can slip out of the "run" position, causing engines to stall and knocking out power steering and disabling the air bags. In some cases, drivers have lost control.

The defective switches are blamed by GM for at least 54 crashes and more than 13 deaths, but at least one member of Congress says the death toll could rise as high as 100.

After the GM recalls in February and March, NHTSA asked auto companies and parts makers for information on switches and how long air bags will inflate after the keys are moved out of the "run" position to "accessory" or "off." In many cases, the answer is less than a second.

That led to the Chrysler inquiries, NHTSA said in a statement. "The agency examined all major manufacturers' air bag deployment strategies as they relate to switch position," the agency said in a statement. "NHTSA will continue to refine its knowledge of these systems."

On Wednesday, NHTSA posted documents on its website detailing an investigation of about 700,000 Dodge Journey SUVs and Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans from the 2008 to 2010 model years. The agency wants to see if the keys can fall out of the run position under "harsh roadway conditions."

Prodded by NHTSA, Chrysler recalled 2010 models of the same vehicles due to the problem, but did not recall those from earlier model years. The agency said 23 drivers complained about the switches, but it had no reports of crashes or injuries. Some of the complaints were from drivers of 2010 models who had the problem after getting the recall repairs.

The other investigation covers about 525,000 Jeep Commander SUVs from 2006 and 2007 and Jeep Grand Cherokees from 2005 and 2006. NHTSA said it has 32 complaints that a driver's knee can hit the key fob or key chain, causing the ignition switch to move out of run and engines to stall.

In a statement, Chrysler of Auburn Hills, Michigan, said it is awaiting more information from NHTSA and "is prepared to cooperate fully with the investigation."

The potential problems were uncovered after GM's ignition switch troubles came to light. In addition to recalling 2.6 million older small cars such as the Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion, GM is recalling another roughly 4 million other cars to fix ignition problems that the company blames on the keys.

NHTSA has been criticized in Congress for failing to act on the GM small-car ignition switch problem. GM has acknowledged knowing about the problem for more than a decade, but it didn't recall the cars until earlier this year. NHSTA also missed signs of a serious safety problem in the cars.

But David Kelly, who served as NHTSA's chief of staff and acting administrator during the George W. Bush administration, said the recent industrywide probe by the agency shows it's doing what it's supposed to do. "They should be a proactive agency in making sure cars are safe," he said.

The latest GM recalls cover newer Chevrolet Camaros as well as the 2005-2009 Buick Lacrosse, 2006-2014 Chevrolet Impala (excluding the newest version), 2000 to 2005 Cadillac Deville, 2004-2011 Cadillac DTS, the 2006-2011 Buick Lucerne, the 2004 and 2005 Buick Regal LS and GS, and the 2006-2008 Chevy Monte Carlo. With most of the cars, GM says the combined force of items dangling from keychains and hitting a bump can knock the switches out of the run position.

GM's fix mainly involves changing the hole on the key from a slot to a small circle, helping it to balance anything dangling from the keys. Until parts are available, the company recommends that owners remove everything from their key chains and drive cars with only the keys in the ignition.

At a congressional hearing earlier this year, NHTSA's top official admitted that the agency didn't fully understand exactly when air bags will deploy when ignitions are switched off.

____

AP Business Writer Joseph Pisani in New York contributed to this report.

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