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GM reaches out with Facebook, telephone

Owners of recalled vehicles slow to schedule ignition-switch repair

Fewer than half of the roughly 2.36 million people driving Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars with defective and potentially deadly ignition switches have had them replaced. (Associated Press)
Fewer than half of the roughly 2.36 million people driving Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars with defective and potentially deadly ignition switches have had them replaced. (Associated Press)
Tom Krisher Associated Press

DETROIT – Eight months after General Motors began recalling more than 2 million cars because of a deadly ignition-switch defect, less than half the owners have gotten their vehicles fixed.

At first, the problem was a shortage of parts. But now the problem is people.

Despite the heavy publicity surrounding the scandal, many drivers evidently haven’t heard of the recall or haven’t grasped how serious the defect is because it hasn’t given them any trouble.

As a result, GM has been forced to go beyond the usual ominous-sounding recall letters.

It has sent out Facebook messages and made phone calls to owners of the cars, mainly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions. CEO Mary Barra has even sent a personal letter urging people to get the switches replaced.

“In some cases we’ve gone to the owners’ home and gotten the vehicle, gave them a loaner, and are working to fix it,” Barra said last week.

GM announced in February and March that it was recalling the cars after taking more than a decade to disclose the defect, now linked to at least two dozen deaths.

The switches can slip out of the run position, causing the engine to shut off. That can knock out power-assisted steering and disable the air bags.

Despite recall letters that bluntly warn that the defect can lead to injury and even death – and despite five congressional hearings and thousands of news stories about the furor – only about 1.16 million of the 2.36 million affected vehicles still on the road have been bought in for repairs.

One of the unrepaired cars belongs to Kim Atkins, a media relations specialist in Austin, Texas, who received recall notices in April and June for her 2007 Cobalt. Busy with moving back to her hometown from college and starting a new job, she ignored them both.

“I didn’t think it was very serious just from the wording on the recall notice,” said Atkins, 24. “

Now, she has made an appointment to bring her car into the shop this week. She has also removed everything from her keychain as instructed by GM.

Because the recalled cars are no longer produced, parts supplier Delphi Automotive had to bring machinery out of mothballs to start cranking out replacement switches.

Repairs finally began in April when the replacement switches started to arrive at dealers. Last Wednesday, GM announced that Delphi had made enough to fix all the cars.

Barra said the challenge now is to find those people who “have still not called the dealership and said, ‘Hey, let’s get my car scheduled.’ ”

GM’s extraordinary efforts to reach people were part of an agreement that ended a federal investigation into why the automaker failed to promptly disclose the switch problem.

It’s not unusual for some car owners to ignore recall notices. The average completion rate 1 1/2 years after a recall begins is 75 percent, according to federal safety regulators.

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