General Motors, regulator should face tough scrutiny


General Motors knew about the faulty ignition switches in its small cars for more than a decade, yet only issued a recall last month. Twelve deaths have been tied to the defect — a number that likely will grow — and both the automaker and federal regulators who missed the problem need to explain what happened.

GM’s chief executive, Mary Barra, has acknowledged the defect and apologized. “I am very sorry for the loss of life that occurred, and we will take every step to make sure this never happens again,” she said. The company likely faces years of lawsuits over the defect, including one filed by the families of two Wisconsin girls who died in a 2006 crash of a Chevrolet Cobalt in St. Croix County. GM has declined to say whether the deaths of Natasha Weigel and Amy Lynn Rademaker are included in the 12 fatalities that the company acknowledges.

GM needs to explain why it took so long to issue a recall. The company’s engineers spotted the defect, which can cause the cars to stall unexpectedly, while doing prep work on the 2005 Chevy Cobalt. GM issued service bulletins in 2005 and 2006 but no recalls. While Barra’s apology is a start, GM is declining to answer some of the key questions, including how high up the food chain the information about the faulty part went.

Barra likely will face questioning from congressional committees — and the Justice Department is looking into whether the company broke any laws. Already, two senators have introduced a bill to make a regulator’s database more user friendly, up to date and easier to search.

GM has recalled more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007) as well as 842,000 Ion compacts (2003-2007), Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). GM says the switches can wear from heavy, dangling keys. If the key chains are bumped or people drive on rough surfaces, the switches can suddenly change from the “run” position to “accessory” or “off.” If that happens, power-assisted steering and brakes may fail and air bags may not inflate in a crash. That may be what happened in the St. Croix crash.

But it’s not just GM that needs to be called to account. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to explain why it failed to act despite two investigations that examined fatal accidents involving 2005 Chevy Cobalts after receiving complaints about ignition switches.

“NHTSA is simply not protecting the public from safety defects as it’s supposed to do,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told CNBC recently. He claims that the GM incident is a pattern for an agency that is understaffed and “has gotten too cozy” with the auto industry. “They now refer to the auto companies as ‘their customers.’ The American public is their customer. They regulate the auto industry,” he said.

Ditlow is right. Consumers have a right to expect far more from both giant automakers such as GM and from federal regulators. Congressional investigators should focus on why both failed to act in a timely way to protect the public.

— From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

 

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