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Another Oversight Failure – GM Recalls 1.6 Million Cars

March 19, 2014

General Motors has recently announced a recall of 1.6 million of its vehicles, some of which are linked with thirteen deaths over the past eleven years. And federal safety regulators have announced that since 2003, they have received 260 complaints–two per month–specifically about how these vehicles have suddenly shut off while being driven. While obviously dangerous due to a driver’s inability to steer and brake a vehicle that is switched off, such malfunctions also result in air bags being disabled. Moreover, the number of deaths stemming from electrical problems in these cars may be higher than these figures reflect. For example, GM has strictly included only those cases in which cars completely stall, not those in which power steering systems or braking systems failed. (Cases like these have led to additional deaths not included in the GM report.)

Unexpected stalling and other related electrical problems have afflicted several different models of GM cars, Pontiac G5s, Saturn Ions, Chevrolet HHRs, Pontiac Solstices, and Saturn Skys, but this problem has occurred most frequently in mid-2000s Chevrolet Cobalts.

A New York Times article on the issue reads, “Many of the complaints detailed frightening scenes in which moving cars suddenly stalled at high speeds, on highways, in the middle of city traffic, and while crossing railroad tracks. A number of complaints warned of catastrophic consequences if something was not done.” GM responded with “polite but formulaic letters” to consumers, many of which question the existence of a “safety defect trend.”

Others appealed to their congressional representatives–Barney Frank, former congressman from Massachusetts, complained to GM on behalf of several of his constituents and received a response claiming, “At this time, there is insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation.” Many dissatisfied consumers, some of whom paid thousands of dollars to terminate leases early in order not to have to drive such dangerous cars, did not receive responses from GM at all.

The piece in the Times compares GM’s failure to recognize patterns of complaints to its earlier “failure to detect a wave of highway rollovers in Ford Explorers with Firestone tires, a problem that was eventually linked to 271 deaths.” This led to congressional intervention in the form of a 2000 law forcing vehicle manufacturers to report injuries or deaths linked with alleged design or manufacturing defects rather than having to depend upon consumer reports for accurate figures. This blog has discussed similar problems between the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration, pointing out several times that consumers should have no expectation of corporations to report safety problems with their products when their profits are on the line.

Part of the recall problem can be chalked up to semantics; in order to mandate an investigation, a given defect must pose an “unreasonable risk to safety,” and attorneys on either side of the law claim various definitions of “reasonable” in various contexts. But auto safety advocate Joan Claybrook, who worked in the Carter administration, claims that while “the ability to spot trends is a huge issue, […] the NTHSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] has not got it under control by any means.”

This is but the most recent and most grievous case in which corporations, responsible for reporting safety problems in their own products, have instead chosen to sit on their hands and await intervention from federal investigators. Especially in the wake of Chrysler’s recall of 3 million vehicles and Toyota’s recall of 1.9 million vehicles, consumers should demand tighter regulations and stricter testing standards of automobiles sold in this country.

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