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Vol. 78/No. 12      March 31, 2014

GM bosses’ refusal to fix
known defects kills 100s
How much is the protection of human life worth to the U.S. auto barons?

According to a recent report, hundreds of people died in crashes of General Motors-made cars as a result of defective ignition switches and likely related air-bag failures. The company was aware of the ignition problem for a decade, but only issued a recall last month in face of mounting pressure. Fixing the problem costs as little as $1 per car, according to NBC News.

Ignition switches in these vehicles if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key chain would shut off the engine and power system while the car was in motion. GM in February recalled 1.6 million cars worldwide from six models produced in 2003-2007.

The company disclosed in papers filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it knew of the ignition defect as far back as 2001. The NHTSA, however, never opened an investigation nor took steps to force GM to recall the cars. GM officials have conceded that a dozen people were killed as a result of the faulty ignition.

Among those not included in GM’s count is Brooke Melton, 29, who was killed four years ago when her 2005 Chevy Cobalt careened out of control after the ignition shut off, colliding with another vehicle. The family’s attorney Lance Cooper “asked witness Gary Altman, who was GM’s program engineering manager for the Cobalt in 2004 and 2005, if it was true that the car company ‘made a business decision not to fix this problem and five months later sold [Brooke Melton] a vehicle with the problem,’” reported NBC News. “That is what happened, yes,” Altman answered.

“In 2005, company engineers proposed that GM keys be altered to make the opening for the key ring smaller and reduce jostling of the key,” reported NBC News. “Instead of changing the keys, however, GM designed an insert that could be added to the keys. It then sent a bulletin to dealership service managers that said the insert could be provided to car owners who came in and complained about ignition shutoffs.” Fewer than 500 drivers did, according to GM warranty records.

According to a recent report on air-bag failures from 2003 to 2012 by Friedman Research Corp., which reviews vehicle design and safety, 303 passengers were killed when air bags failed to open in two of the GM models just recalled — 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-07 Saturn Ions.

The judge who approved GM’s bankruptcy filing in June 2009 absolved the “new” GM of legal responsibility for incidents that occurred before then.

“It is true that new GM did not assume liability for claims arising from incidents or accidents occurring prior to July 2009,” said a GM statement. “Our principle through this process has been to put the customer first, and that will continue to guide us.”

In another development, GM recalled 1.5 million other vehicles over faulty air-bag system wiring March 17. The recall affects sport utilities that go as far back as 2008. Cadillac XTS, 2013 and 2014, were also recalled for shorts in brake booster-pumps that can cause fires.  
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