GM Recall Death Toll to Rise?; What Did Mary Barra Know and When Did She Know it?

crashed CobaltThe New York Times hinted that the 11 year death toll for victims who drove defective General Motors’ vehicles (that are just now being recalled) may rise from the current 12 confirmed fatalities. The Times reports, “Since 2003, GM has reported at least 78 deaths and 1,581 injuries involving the now-recalled cars, according to a review of agency records.”

It is not clear how many of the accidents involving one of the 1.6 million now-recalled vehicles were caused by the defect. The article does state that “the records mention potentially defective components” and “regulators appear to have overlooked disturbing complaints of engine shutdowns.”

The basis of the report is a new chronology of events regarding the recall. The chronology also gives evidence that now-GM CEO Mary Barra was likely aware of the problem in 2011. GM’s response to the escalating scandal was to offer drivers of its defective vehicles loaner cars and $500 discounts towards the purchase of a new GM vehicle.

Mary Barra says that she will personally oversee the investigation to determine why motorists’ lives were put at risk for years after the company knew of the problem. Considering that Ms. Barra was the head of product development in early 2011 and oversaw quality control, perhaps the investigation should include her accountability in not bringing the problem to light.

Regarding the deadly defect delay, the new chronology of events presented by GM states that, “In late July 2011, a meeting was held at GM involving Legal Staff, Field Performance Assessment (“FPA”) and Product Investigations Personnel who would be involved in the Field Performance Evaluation (“PFE”) process.” Given Ms. Barra’s position at the time, it is hard to believe that she was not aware of the issue. Ms. Barra’s previous engineering roles may have made her aware at an even earlier date. The timeline of events clearly makes “New” GM accountable for the recall delay.

GM’s response to its fatal recall delay has been deplorable. Only after media sources began to escalate the story did the company act as if it cared about getting to the bottom of why it took 13 years (reports now point to 2001 as the year GM first became aware of the problems) to recall vehicles that they knew were unsafe. GM’s initial response was to recall only a portion of the dangerous vehicles that were on the road as the company cited alcohol, weather conditions and speeding as factors in accidents that killed drivers of defective GM vehicles. The company also blamed drivers for operating its defective vehicles with extra keys on the key chains.

The vehicles in question had defective ignition switches which turned off power to the cars under certain conditions, killing steering, power brakes and air bag systems. Only after the company was criticized for recalling just a portion of the deadly vehicles did the company expand the recall to include all of the defective cars. GM’s attempt to now try and capitalize on the tragedy by offering discounts in an attempt to sell new cars is despicable.

The recent offer by GM of loaner cars and $500 off a new GM vehicle to drivers of the dangerous recalled cars is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Fargo, when a car salesman addresses a complaint from a car buyer who was charged $500 for “Trucoat,” which the purchaser never agreed to. After saying he discussed it with a manager, the sleazy salesman’s resolution was, “Well, he never done this before, circumstances and all, he says I can knock a hundred dollars off that Trucoat.” Does the GM response to help drivers of defective vehicles by offering $500 off a new GM vehicle sound like a sleazy sales ploy? As they would say in Fargo, “Yah, you betcha!”

$500 off of a new GM vehicle will not resolve the deadly recall delay issue. Both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have lots to answer for regarding the botched recall. Why did they allow deadly vehicles to remain on the road for years after complaints of defective ignition switches and fatal accidents were reported?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the GM recall scandal is the fact that American lives are entrusted to government agencies that work for an Administration that is in bed with a major corporation and then those same agencies are put in charge of regulating the crony company. It is a fact that President Obama ran a reelection campaign that focused on the perceived success of GM and the auto bailouts. His opponent, Mitt Romney, was lambasted for suggesting that the government should not have interfered to the extent that they did in bailing out GM.

The obvious conflicts arising from the executive branch of our government having a vested interest in the success of a major US industrial corporation warrants further debate. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money were spent to bail out the UAW, which then came out in force to help with President Obama’s reelection bid. At the same time, regulating agencies like NHTSA, the Justice Department (which is now in charge of a criminal investigation of GM) and the SEC are placed in charge of overseeing crony corporations.

The determination as to how “successful” the auto bailouts really were will now have to take into account the lost lives of those who died in defective GM vehicles that were allowed to remain on the road by the bailed-out company and the regulating agency that should have made sure these vehicles were recalled long ago. Whether or not NHTSA was influenced by GM’s crony status with the Obama Administration when they continued to overlook the company’s deadly defect, it is hard to deny that the conflicts of interests are obvious.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.