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Drivers of US Vehicles at Risk, Says Auto Safety Group

As U.S. lawmakers demand to know why it took U.S. automaker General Motors more than 10 years to replace a safety defect, an auto safety group says the delay exposes a major flaw in the recall system that puts anyone who drives an American car at risk.

A defective ignition switch, easily fixed with a 60-cent part, is blamed for the deaths of at least 13 people, including Randall Rademaker’s 15-year-old daughter Amy.

“Her and two other friends were in a [Chevrolet] Cobalt," he said. "They are coming back from shopping and the ignition switch shut off, and they left the roadway and hit a tree. Two of the girls were killed."

Families of the victims who gathered in Washington during congressional hearings say it didn’t have to happen.

“They have known [about] this defect all along for a decade," said David Chansuthus, whose sister Sadie was killed in a similar accident in 2010. "So they deliberately concealed the truth simply for a business decision.”

Testifying before Congress, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said those were the actions of the old GM.

“That’s not the way we do business in today’s GM,” Barra said. “Today, if there is a safety issue, we take action. If we know there is a defect on our vehicles, we do not look at cost associated with it. We look at the speed at which we can fix the issue.”

But Clarence Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety says the problem is a systemic one involving a cozy relationship between automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“They had meetings over this defect," Ditlow said. "They share complaints over this defect, yet there was no investigation by the government and no recall by General Motors until 10 years later. That’s a tragedy.”

Among the government’s failings, says Ditlow, are inadequate agency funding and not enough investigators.

But an expert on corporate culture says industry-wide problems prior to the government bailout may be partly to blame.

“When a company’s very existence is at risk, you probably develop a bit of a siege mentality," said Brian Fielkow, author of Driving to Perfection. "Let’s just cut every dime, cut every corner in order to survive.”

In a global marketplace, Ditlow says that's bad business.

"We have a global auto industry today, and, if you have a death in a vehicle in the U.S., there’s likely to be a death in a similar model in another country, and we need global regulations and global recalls instead of global cover-ups," he said.

Ditlow would like to see the entire recall system become more transparent. And if that fails, he suggests making the government agency accountable and allowing the public to sue when it fails to do its job.