These are the kind of things that piss me off. A fellow LAS staffer just happens to have a Chevy HHR. The HHR apparently stands for “Heritage High Roof”. At least that’s what Wikipedia says (you can tell I didn’t research that one too deeply). But I’m thinking HHR ought to stand for “HOW ’bout HAVING a RECALL?”.
Yes, a recall. For a design defect. For the ignition switch. It seems the HHR ignition switch has a tendency to get a bit, well, stuck. And that’s precisely what happened when my colleague drove into her driveway last Saturday evening. The key in her HHR got stuck. In the ignition. With the car running. Repeat: running.
Now, I’m sure many of us have experienced that damn-the-key’s-stuck thing—or the opposite, when you go to start the ignition and the key won’t turn at all. Usually a quick tug on the steering wheel will unlock the mechanism that allows your key to function properly. But what if that doesn’t work? And the car is running? Repeat: running.
What do you do? Aside, that is, from flashing back to Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and realizing your car’s heading there—only it won’t be running on, running behind, or into the sun. It’ll be dead.
Here’s what our staffer did: She called AAA. Hell, she has a membership and they’re supposed to come help you out with a tow when you need one, right? That’s what I’d do. But here’s what happened—AAA said they couldn’t do anything about it. Next!
Call GM. Here’s what happened there—they didn’t want to diagnose the problem over the phone (what, was it wire-tapped? was a lawyer nearby?) Their advice? To “pull the fuel pump relay so the car turns off” and they’ll send a tow truck Monday morning. Ok, let’s just be whipping out that driver’s manual in the glove box to figure out what the heck the fuel pump relay looks like…
Here’s where this gets interesting. Tow guy comes on Monday. When he hears what the problem is, he says, “Oh, second one this weekend. There was a car in the storage yard they couldn’t turn off. They just towed it there, running, until it ran out of gas. It took over 24 hours.” Did you catch that one word? Running.
So they went on to the dealership. Our staffer tells the service guy there that she couldn’t turn the car off. He says, “Key is stuck in the ignition, right?” Bingo!
Our staffer’s starting to connect the dots and do that raise-an-eyebrow thing we all tend to do here at LAS. Comes with the territory. So she starts investigating the issue…goes to the GM site, the car recall sites, the Chevy HHR forum boards. No mention of any recall, but plenty of mentions of stuck keys in the ignition—from various years. She’s thinking, “what’s up with that?” (I’d be thinking WTF?)
Before I go further, the service manager at the dealership expounded on things. Seems that it’s a fairly common problem—not only with the HHR, but also with the Cobalt. The part in question was apparently redesigned due to a design defect, but there was never any recall. So if it happens to folks, they can get it fixed—if the car’s still under warranty, great, otherwise it may cost you about $350 (at least at our staffer’s dealership). Oh, the service manager mentioned that GM should’ve also said to disconnect the battery cables after pulling the fuel pump relay. Gee thanks.
So off I went to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—the folks who do recalls and car defect investigations. I went there not to find out about the HHR—heck, we know there hasn’t been a recall on that—but to find out exactly what is necessary for a recall to happen? For starters (bad pun, I know), a “recall is necessary when…
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thinking that a car whose engine I cannot control is perhaps a safety-related defect—? But I am willing to concede that if the car is in “P” for “Park” that maybe it cannot cause harm, unless I close the garage door and remain in the garage for the night…
Onward. Here’s the NHTSA list—not fully inclusive—of safety-related defects that may prompt a recall:
Ok, those all make sense, and in my mind the one about “critical vehicle components” kind of fits the bill—but regardless—doesn’t a car whose engine I cannot shut off seem like not a good thing? Particularly when a replacement part has already been manufactured to correct the known defect? Maybe a full-blown recall is not necessary, but wouldn’t a little postcard in the mail from GM/Chevy be nice? A little “come on down, have some coffee and watch that tv hoisted high in the corner while we fix that little ol’ ignition switch” notice?
But there is nothing. And instead, you’re left with a seemingly out-of-the-blue car problem and then left holding the bag when it comes time to pay for it.
Aside from complaining to GM, your other form of recourse is to report the problem to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Vehicle Safety Hotline, which is operated by the NHTSA. The number is 888-327-4236. Not enough recourse for my liking, but sometimes it’s the squeaky wheels or the grassroots efforts that get the attention…
Let us know if you’ve got a similar story—we’d love to hear about it, and we’re sure others would, too.