Source: New York Times By HILARY STOUT and REBECCA R. RUIZ
YONKERS — Nearly nine months after General Motors began recalling millions of its cars for a dangerously defective ignition switch, almost half of the vehicles still have not been fixed.
A spokesman for the automaker said it was increasing its outreach to owners through social media and a new call center staffed with 72 employees dedicated to contacting those who have not scheduled repairs.
But even owners who requested repairs months ago have been waiting, with dealers managing wait-lists and dozens of drivers writing to federal regulators in recent weeks asking why it was taking so long. Some of them are also raising safety concerns about the drawn-out timetable, as a recent fatal accident here suggests.
[Brittany Alfarone on a recent vacation to Hawaii. Ms. Alfarone died in October when her Chevrolet Cobalt crashed into a guardrail in Yonkers.]
One of the unrepaired vehicles was a red 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt that crashed here the night of Oct. 9, killing its 25-year-old driver, Brittany Alfarone. Her mother, Dierdre Betancourt, said she had tried to fix the car twice, but two dealers turned her away.
Now the police are investigating the single-car accident for possible ties to the ignition defect, which can cause power to cut out in a moving car, shutting down airbags and impeding power steering and brakes.
A few weeks before the accident, Ms. Betancourt said, the car had done precisely that, shutting off after hitting a bump while in the middle lane on a busy parkway in the Bronx.
[Dierdre Betancourt, mother of Brittany Alfarone, who died last month. Ms. Betancourt contacted two dealers about the recall on her daughter's car. She says both turned her away. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times]
A spokesman for the Yonkers Police Department said the car had been so badly damaged in the wreck that killed Ms. Alfarone that it was unclear whether data from its black box could be salvaged to help determine what had happened.
G.M. faces multiple investigations, including a federal criminal inquiry, over its decade-long delay in ordering a recall of the cars with the defective switch, which has been linked to 30 deaths. But less attention has been paid to the companyâ€™s oversight of the recall itself and the critical task of fixing the 2.36 million cars — of the 2.6 million originally recalled — that it estimates are still in use.
While G.M. says it has all the parts to fix every car — produced ahead of schedule by its supplier Delphi Automotive — just 1.26 million, or 53 percent, of those cars have been repaired as of last week. The average completion rate of repairs on recalled cars in the United States is 75 percent over an average of 18 months, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The recall repair rates on older vehicles tend to be lower.
The long timetable for the ignition switch repairs — the replacement parts had to be manufactured and the first repairs did not come until two months after the recall was announced in February — highlights a continuing problem with recalls. Even in highly publicized cases, the fix can be elusive, and while some owners remain ignorant of the issue, even those who try to act can be left vulnerable.
Chris Luchterhand, 22, of Grafton, Wis., last heard from G.M. in June, when he received a letter saying that the replacement switch for his Saturn Ion was not yet available and telling him the company would contact him when it was. He continues to drive an average of 40 miles a day between school at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and his job at a medical clinic in Grafton, a situation that frightens his father.
[Chris Luchterhand, 22, of Grafton, Wis., is still waiting for the repair to his Saturn Ion. He drives 40 miles a day in it. Credit Darren Hauck for The New York Times]
â€œHow in the world could it take this long to get something fixed when people are getting killed by it?â€ asked his father, Troy Luchterhand.
Ms. Betancourt, whose daughter died here last month, learned there were recalls on the used Cobalt days after she bought it for her daughter in March. Her brother had looked up the vehicle on the Internet and informed her of the problems, which included the defective ignition switch. He advised her to call a dealer and get the car fixed as soon as possible, she said.
The first dealer she telephoned refused her business because she had bought the car from a towing service after the car had been in an accident, Ms. Betancourt said. â€œWe donâ€™t service salvage titles,â€ he said and hung up, she recalled.
The second tapped the vehicle identification number into his computer, just as the first had done, and told her something completely different, she said — that the car had already been fixed. No outstanding recall repairs remained, he assured her. She was puzzled but took him at his word.
In fact, the car had not been fixed — as entering the V.I.N. into the G.M. public database for recalled vehicles confirmed. Both of the dealers she contacted are on G.M.'s list of certified dealers.
â€œI thought I had done everything right,â€ Ms. Betancourt said. She said she had never received any communication from G.M.
Ms. Betancourt was not the only one to be told that a car had been fixed when it had not. A complaint logged into N.H.T.S.A.,'s consumer database details a similar experience: The owner of an unrepaired 2008 Chevrolet HHR from Voluntown, Conn., wrote: â€œThe dealer stated that the repair was already completed in May of 2014 and would not repair the vehicle a second time.â€
Even with parts available, the task of coordinating and scheduling repairs and labor has tested dealers. A dealer in Vienna, Va., canceled two appointments on Edward Hanlon of Oakton, Va., telling him that its machine that cut new keys was broken, he said. The third time, after he dropped his car off for the repair, the service department called him at home to say they did not have a new switch for his vehicle after all. The dealer later found one and finally fixed the vehicle.
Mr. Hanlon had requested a loaner car from three separate dealers because G.M. had offered rental vehicles to drivers awaiting ignition-switch repairs. But all three said they had no spare cars, so he continued driving his unfixed Ion for nearly five months. â€œI had to,â€ he said. â€œI need a car to drop my son off at day care and pick him up. But I felt apprehensive driving it, especially with a 1Â½-year-old in the back.â€
G.M. says it has provided more than 89,000 loaner cars, amounting to less than 4 percent of the recalled cars on the road.
G.M. partly attributes the large number of unrepaired cars to inaction by owners. â€œPeople are very busy, and it can be a challenge to find the time to take their vehicle in to be repaired,â€ said a spokesman, James R. Cain. However some dealers have had a hard time keeping up with demand. Freehold Buick in Freehold, N.J., was so deluged with ignition switch repair requests that it dedicated a full day exclusively to making the repair, cutting the wait-list of about 100 people in half, according to the dealershipâ€™s service manager, Bill Marter. He said the dealership turned it into a party, offering a rock band and a barbecue. â€œWe knocked out 50 repairs that day,â€ he said. â€œIf we hadnâ€™t done that, weâ€™d be way more backed up.â€
A few vehicle owners who had a replacement switch installed reported that they were still having stalling or other ignition problems, such as keys that couldnâ€™t be removed. The New York Times found 43 such complaints to the highway safety administration since August.
[The scene of Brittany Alfarone's Oct. 9 accident in Yonkers. It is a mile and a half from her mother's home. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times]
â€œThe ignition switch problem still persists after having the recall service performed,â€ wrote one driver from Mesa, Ariz., in September. â€œI was shifting my hips to adjust my seating position, and my knee bumped into my keychain and caused the ignition to switch to the â€˜offâ€™ position. I was luckily able to move to the shoulder of the highway, shift into park and restart the vehicle. This event happened within 48 hours of having the recall service performed at a Chevrolet dealership.â€
G.M. has vigorously fought efforts to order all the affected cars off the road until they are repaired. This spring it successfully blocked a proposed court order that would have required the company to advise owners to park their cars until they were fixed. The judge in the case, Nelva Gonzales Ramos of United States District Court in Corpus Christi, Tex., said federal regulators at N.H.T.S.A. were better equipped to decide whether such a measure was necessary. The safety agency declined to impose it.
A few days ago, Ms. Betancourt invited a reporter into her home, a small, immaculately kept apartment in the back of a low ranch-style house, about a mile and a half from the scene of the accident where her daughter died.
Candles glowed by a large poster board with photos of Brittany at all stages of her short life — a pretty young woman posing with a giant turtle on vacation in Hawaii, a chubby-cheeked toddler, a school girl decorating a Christmas tree.
After the dealer told her the recall problems had been taken care of, Ms. Betancourt had assumed the car was O.K., she said, and her daughter continued to drive it. A few weeks before the accident, though, things began to go wrong. One day, Ms. Betancourt said she and her daughter were driving in the middle lane of a major thoroughfare in the Bronx when they hit a small bump in the road. Ms. Alfarone was driving. â€œAll of a sudden my daughterâ€™s going, â€˜Ma, thereâ€™s no power,'â€Šâ€Š" Ms. Betancourt recalled. â€œShe turned the key and realized the car had completely shut off. Thank God we did not get hit.â€
Joseph Brini was driving behind Ms. Alfarone the night of the accident. He said it seemed as if the driver was wrestling with the car. â€œMy feeling is she was trying to get some control,â€ he said. â€œThe poor girl had no control of the car.â€
The vehicle slammed into a guardrail and erupted in flames. The county medical examiner listed the cause of death as thermal burns, asphyxiation because of carbon monoxide and laceration of the liver, a condition that some auto engineering experts say suggests, based on Ms. Alfaroneâ€™s slight build, the airbag did not deploy.
At th funeral, Ms. Alfaroneâ€™s boyfriend, Richard PeÃ±a, embraced Ms. Betancourt. â€œI told her that car wasnâ€™t right.â€