Faulty Switch

The Cops Who Found Out the Truth About GM's Deadly Cars—in 2006

Seven years ago, a Chevy Cobalt with a defective ignition switch killed two teenage girls. How Wisconsin police discovered the lethal flaw before it became a national scandal.

Bryan Mitchell/Bloomberg via Getty

The mother of 15-year-old Amy Rademaker has heard varying estimates of what it would have cost General Motors per car to replace an ignition switch it knew was faulty even before the death cars left the factory.

“At one time I heard 57 cents,” the mother, Margie Beskau of Wisconsin, said this week. “Then I heard 97 cents.”

By either estimate, the defective switch cost Amy Rademaker and at least a dozen other people their lives.

“My daughter died because of their greed,” the mother said of the car company.

The mother learned this past February, more than seven years after her daughter’s death, that General Motors had known about the problem all along.

“If felt like somebody punched me in the stomach and ripped my heart out for the second time,” the mother said.

The mother has a definite opinion of what form justice should take for General Motors.

“I think they should be brought up on charges and put in prison,” she said. “In my opinion, they are murderers. They knew about it and they could have stopped it before the first car went in the showroom. They didn’t because they wanted to save money.”

Any jurisdictional complications aside, the mother figures that the arrests should be made by the Wisconsin cops who were so tireless and meticulous in investigating the 2006 accident in which her daughter and another teenager died. The cops were able to determine the truth seven years before General Motors finally ’fessed up.

Back on the night of October 24, 2006, Deputy Eric Johnson of the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office responded along with three troopers of the Wisconsin State Patrol to a report of a single-car accident with multiple injuries on a two-lane road in Kinnickinnic.

The officers arrived to see a white 2005 Chevy Cobalt in a ditch with its front end extensively damaged from colliding with a a pair of trees. Three critically injured teenage girls were inside. The police report would note something unusual for such an accident.

“The vehicle airbags were not deployed.”

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The 17-year-old driver was seated on the floor under the steering wheel with her legs trapped under the dashboard, but she was conscious and able to tell Johnson her name was Megan Ungar-Kerns.

“I asked Megan what had happened,” Johnson wrote in the report. “Megan said she didn’t know.”

The front passenger, 15-year-old Amy Rademaker, was trapped between the seat, the dashboard, and the side door.

“Amy was breathing, but unresponsive.”

A third girl, 18-year-old Natasha Weigel, lay face-up across the back seat, also breathing, but also unresponsive. Firefighters extricated all three girls after cutting away the front passenger door and part of the car’s upper structure.

Paramedics were also on the scene, and Megan survived, though with a significant brain injury. Natasha hung on for nearly two weeks, but then died. Amy was pronounced dead at 11:18 p.m. the night of the accident. She had suffered 38 injuries in the crash.

The following day, Deputy Johnson filled out a form headed “Officers Opinion of Possible Contributing Circumstances.” He skipped down a checklist that included speeding, driving too fast for the conditions, inattentive driving, failure to yield, improper turn, tailgating, disregarding a traffic signal, improper passing, and unsafe braking. He checked only the 11th possibility:

“Failure to have control.”

The question was what had caused the failure.

The state troopers began an investigation.

“For some unknown reason, the vehicle traveled off the pavement at a gradual angle,” the troopers wrote. “The roadway leading up to the crash scene was inspected for any indication as to why the vehicle left the road. The first evidence that could be observed was gravel from the shoulder scattered onto the eastbound lane.”

The trooper figured that was most likely caused by the vehicle’s tires, whose tracks led across a ditch to the edge of a driveway.

“The vehicle then struck the sloped driveway embankment and vaulted approximately 59 feet through the air. The vehicle landed and traveled another 82 feet before striking a telephone junction box. The vehicles then traveled additional 46 feet before striking a grouping of two trees and rotating approximately 94 degrees.”

The car finally came to rest just past the trees, back in the ditch. The troopers conducted a careful examination of the Chevy itself and took note of a critical detail.

“The ignition switch on the vehicle appears to have been in the accessory position when it impacted the trees, preventing the airbags from deploying.”

A shift to the accessory position would have also caused the power steering to suddenly quit. That explained why the driver had lost control at an estimated 48 mph going down a slight hill on a straight stretch of dry road.

The troopers did a search on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration website to see if there had been similar incidents.

“Five complaints of 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt ignition switches turning off while the vehicle was being driven,” the troopers reported.

The troopers noted that they had obtained a printout of General Motors Document #1869035, “inadvertent turning of key cylinder, loss of electrical system” for the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt. General Motors suggested that the problem was the drivers hitting the key with their leg or having too much on a key chain.

“The bulletin goes on to mention that the condition is more likely to occur if the driver is short and the key chain is large and/or heavy,” the troopers noted.

Only after General Motors finally issued a recall for the Cobalt and a half-dozen other models seven years later did the state troopers—along with Amy’s mother and the rest of the country—learn that the company had discovered there was a problem with the switch back in 2004. That was when General Motors was preparing to roll out the 2005 Cobalt. The company has since said that it initiated what it calls a “Problem Resolution Tracking System Inquiry” that “considered a number of potential solutions.”

“After consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness of each of these solutions, the PRTS was closed with no action,” General Motors now admits.

At first, Amy’s mother heard that the cost was between $2 and $5 a switch. She then learned that General Motors already had designed and made a good switch in 2001. That brought the cost down to under a dollar.

If the case comes to trial, General Motors no doubt will point out that Amy and her friends were not wearing seat belts and that the tires were more worn than was ideal.

But the fact remains that the accident would never have occurred in the first place were it not for the faulty switch. And the airbags might very well have saved Amy.

On Wednesday, Amy’s mother spoke of her magical daughter who had an infectious laugh that sounded like “a cross between Woody Woodpecker and a chipmunk” and who would only wear mismatched clothes.

“She’d say, ‘Does this match?’ and if I said yes, she’d go and change,’” the mother recalled on Wednesday.

She sometimes went to school in fresh pajamas and her much taller sister’s bathrobe.

“She was just, ‘This is me, like it or leave it,’” the mother said. “I didn’t know anybody who didn’t like her, who didn’t love her.”

Amy wanted to open a day-care center when she grew up and to have eight kids of her own. Her mother now spends her days in unceasing mourning for the kid she lost.

“Seven and a half years and it doesn’t get any easier,” the mother said. “There is no closure. Closure means there’s an end to it. There’s no end to my grief, to my daughter being gone.”

The mother does hope justice will be dealt to the people she considers murderers. She can think of nobody better to make the arrests than the Wisconsin cops who did such fine work on the crash.

“I can’t thank them enough,” the mother said.

In the meantime, the mother remembers Amy’s laugh and how everybody else would join in and how they would all keep laughing.

“To the point of tears.”

Tears that sprang from the very opposite of grief.

“I wish I could hear that again,” the mother said. “I really do.”