By Jeff Green
and Patrick G. Lee
When Bill Trautwein offered to buy his daughter a car to drive to college classes, she went for the blue one — a used 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that matched the color of the Florida Gators uniform her big brother wore on the way to two national football championships.
Sarah Trautwein was driving the car on a June morning in 2009 when she left the road, struck a tree and died.
While Bill Trautwein says he assumed his daughter had fallen asleep at the wheel, General Motors’ recall of models including Sarah’s has made him reconsider: The ignition switches in some cars can be inadvertently clicked off, GM said last month, cutting power to the engine and airbags, steering and brakes. A driver would find herself behind a hard-to-muscle wheel of a coasting car, with suddenly stiffer brakes.
Sarah, then 19 years old, probably wouldn’t have known what to do, Trautwein said. “She was a young driver,” he said. “It would have probably freaked her out.”
Years after fatal accidents involving Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other recalled models, a grim picture is taking form. The now-recalled vehicles were predominantly entry-level cars marketed to first-time drivers. These same drivers, according to safety and auto experts, may have been among the least prepared to react to a sudden loss of power.
“It’s a young person’s car,” said Bill Visnic, senior editor at auto website Edmunds.com and a veteran of more than 20 years of vehicle test drives. “When you turn off the ignition and you lose power steering, especially, it’s a very panicky feeling.”
GM, in announcing its global recalls of 1.6 million vehicles in February, linked the ignition flaws to 12 deaths. More broadly, hundreds of deaths have been reported to regulators in crashes of the recalled models in which airbags failed to deploy. Now, plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking to establish whether some of those deadly events may have started when an ignition key was rattled or bumped out of position. The prospective examples that are emerging span the country and include the old and the young, but strikingly the young.
A description of Sarah Trautwein’s accident appeared in a motion filed on March 24 by Texas attorney Bob Hilliard in federal court in Corpus Christi. The motion, part of a lawsuit against GM for economic damages on behalf of two plaintiffs and a proposed group, listed eight possible victims of malfunctioning GMs — seven of whom, including Trautwein, were 25 years old or younger.
CEO has two teens
Mary Barra, GM’s recently named chief executive officer and the mother of two teenagers, has apologized for the company’s delay. She said the events hit home with her as a mother. The families of several young people who died in crashes involving the recalled cars attended a congressional hearing last week at which Barra testified.
GM has told regulators that some employees knew of the faulty switches as early as 2001. In 2005, GM said in a statement that drivers should be able to respond to a power loss in a Cobalt by restarting the engine in neutral and proceeding on their way.
For many drivers, it wasn’t so simple. In the spring of 2005, according to court documents, GM dealers started receiving complaints from owners whose Cobalts, Ions and other models were shutting down unexpectedly. Many came from parents who said their young drivers had brought their cars to a halt, often in the middle of an intersection or highway. Others said their kids had crashed into ditches, snowbanks or other cars.
The recalls raise a new round of questions for many parents who have already lived for years with the soul-searching that the loss of a child brings.
“You can’t replace her. What can I do?” said Trautwein, a 53-year-old retired military pilot. Referring to new lawsuits against GM, he said: “Money isn’t the object. But hopefully it stops someone else from dying.”
The recalled models emerged during a period of severe cost-cutting in the years before GM’s 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, according to several people with knowledge of the company at the time. GM designed Cobalts and Ions to target first-time buyers, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, a car information website. It priced them to compete with Toyota’s Corolla and Honda’s Civic, he said.
“Their audience was aging,” Brauer said. The antidote, he said, was to build “attractive, small, entry-level cars that younger people buy.”
Soon after the cars hit the market, GM’s dealers began receiving complaints about unintentional shut-offs, including at least 16 from parents. A Colorado woman told a dealership that her 19-year-old son’s Cobalt stalled as he entered an offramp at 70 mph, sending him crashing into a ditch. He hit his head and lived. A father in Kentucky said his 18-year-old daughter guided her Cobalt to a stop, once in the middle of the road, after three separate stalls.
The complaints, from March 2005 through April 2009, were among 90 dealer accounts that were read into a deposition in a wrongful-death lawsuit in Georgia that GM settled in September.
“Customer states how the car shut off on daughter at 55 miles per hour yesterday. Customer states now scared to put her daughter in the car,” said an Ohio dealer’s summary read into the deposition. Another, from a Georgia mother who complained of stalls: “Customer is begging for a new car. She is too afraid the car will do it again while her daughter drives it.”
GM countered concerns by asking dealers to tell customers to take heavy items from their key rings, lest the extra weight turn the key. Several engineers deposed in the Georgia lawsuit testified that even if these models’ brakes and steering lost power, the cars could be maneuvered.
“The Cobalt is still controllable” if it loses power inadvertently, Alan Adler, a GM spokesman, said in a 2005 statement issued after two newspaper auto reviewers reported unexpected shutdowns. “The engine can be restarted after shifting to neutral.”
Adler declined a request to make additional comments beyond those GM has offered on the recall.
In 2005, the Cobalt was deemed the “most buzz-worthy” among 49 new nameplate car launches by 19- to 28-year-olds, according to an online Kelley Blue Book/Harris Interactive survey of more than 20,000 U.S. car shoppers at the time.
Heather Heaster turned 16 that year, and her dad told her she could pick out a car. Her parents, loyal to GM cars, wanted Heather to buy a Chevrolet, according to Heather and her mother, Gwenda Heaster.
Heather picked out a bright red 2005 Cobalt with a sunroof. She had it about a month, she said, when it stalled at dusk on a two-lane road near the family’s home in Crawley, W.Va.
“You saw the speedometer and the fuel gauge and they all just went to zero,” Heather recalled in an interview. “I couldn’t turn my wheel because the power steering cut out. And the brakes, I went to stop, and you couldn’t push them in. Luckily, when it happened, there was a place to pull off.”
A mechanic at the local Chevy dealership blamed her heavy key chain, she said, for torquing the key out of position. She removed a little cloth boot, a decorative eagle and a lanyard, she said. The stalls continued. The dealership eventually gave her a 2006 model that she said didn’t stall.
The Heaster family’s experience was among those read into the deposition in the Georgia wrongful-death suit.