GM’s initial response to our request yesterday for a recall of vehicles with a brake corrosion problem is completely unacceptable. It was contained in a Detroit News article about our call for the carmaker to recall 6 million pickups and SUVs that are the subject of an open investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
GM spokesman Alan Adler, in photo, claimed that the brake corrosion problem is industry-wide, and suggested it was a normal wear-and-tear issue. He told the News:
The trucks in question are long out of factory warranty and owners manuals urge customers to have their brake lines inspected the same way brake pads need replacement for wear. In fact, more than 20 states require brake-line inspections at one- or two-year intervals or when stopped for a violation.
Adler is the same GM spokesman who made outrageous and inaccurate claims when the ignition switch controversy surfaced, asserting that the victims were reckless or drunk.
Let’s hope that GM CEO Mary Barra will step in and order a recall without further delay.
The fact is, any internet search of “brake line rust” will expose a much higher percentage of complaints from GM owners as opposed to any other manufacturer. GM’s other defense that the problem only occurs in “salt belt” states also does not give owners of the vehicles in question much reassurance.
Let’s look at just a few of the comments and articles addressing the problem of brake line corrosion in GM vehicles. A Yahoo Auto article from April of this year gives this harrowing quote from one of the owners of a 2005 Chevy Silverado:
While approaching a red light at 28 mph and pressing the brake, the pedal went completely to the floor and the vehicle did not slow down. I pumped the pedal repeatedly and only slight braking action could be achieved. I went through the intersection just narrowly missing two crossing cars and turned onto a nearby side street. After finally getting the vehicle to stop, I got out and saw a puddle of brake fluid forming a few feet behind the driver side front wheel.
That article also reported that GM has offered a remedy stating, “In response to continuing complaints, GM does offer a discounted brake-line repair kit, which it estimates should cost about $500 versus the $2,000 such a repair had cost in the past.” In effect, GM is offering a discounted repair kit to repair problems that it says doesn’t exist.
WFTS-TV in Tampa Bay reported on the problem in August of 2013 with a piece entitled “More GM Owners Report Brake Line Rust.” From that report:
Mike Thomann was driving his GMC Sierra pickup truck home recently when something felt wrong.
“I hit my brakes,” Thomann said, “and all of a sudden it felt really mushy. And the next time I hit my brakes they went all the way to the floor.”
He says he limped his car into his driveway, at which point “I got out and brake line fluid was all over my driveway.”
When he looked under the driver’s door, he says he couldn’t believe the condition of his brake lines.
“They were completely rusted through, and the fluid was pouring out of it.”
The report also states, “In April 2013, Subaru recalled 2005 – 2009 Outback and Legacy cars for similar brake line corrosion.” Note that Subaru’s response to the problem was a recall, something GM so far seems reluctant to do.
ConsumerAffairs.com chimed in on the issue this year as well. One of their sources described their experience:
I was driving south on I-95 on the New Jersey Turnpike and slowed due to traffic and brakes went to the floor. I pumped them several times and put on the emergency brake and luckily stopped before hitting anyone,” said Sean of Westbrook, Conn. “I had my whole family in the car, wife, 4 kids as we were heading to Maryland from Connecticut to visit family for Christmas. I pulled over and was able to stop again but the brakes never felt quite right again.
Or, as Dennis of Murrysville, Pa., put it: “2002 Chevy Avalanche – While driving home from a 350-mile trip, my brakes failed due to a rusted brake line. Fortunately, people got the hell out of my way or I could have run over or into other vehicles with kids in them. If Chevy thinks that when one brake line fails, that you still have braking power, then let me see the President and CEO of Chevy put his family in front of a Chevy truck going 50 miles per hour with one failed brake line and see if the vehicle will stop. The brakes are the most important part of the vehicle, yet is the junkiest part of the vehicle. The stainless steel moldings will last 250 years plus, but the brake lines fail within ten years.”
The list of these kinds of stories goes on and on. Yet GM maintains that the vehicles are safe and can be safely brought to a stop when brake lines rupture. I would question both the accuracy of this response and the source itself.
The GM spokesman, Alan Adler, who now claims that rusting brake lines in GM vehicles are perfectly safe and a normal wear and tear item, made GM’s response to the deadly recall delay for ignition switch problems, which contributed to the deaths of at least 13 motorists. Mr. Adler has never answered for his deceptive response to that scandal, reported by the New York Times. The article quotes Adler:
“All of these crashes occurred off-road and at high speeds, where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high regardless of air bag deployment. In addition, failure to wear seat belts and alcohol use were factors in some of these cases,” the statement said.
Alcohol was involved in two of the five crashes, resulting in three of the deaths, Alan Adler, a spokesman for G.M., said in a telephone interview. The statement said G.M. was also aware of 17 other crashes “involving some type of frontal impact and nonfatal injuries where the air bags did not deploy.”
Mr. Adler said it was possible that hitting a deep pothole could turn off the ignition, but that G.M. had received no such reports. A figure for the weight of key rings causing the problems was not available.
So, excuse me if I am now skeptical of Adler’s latest dismissal of the brake corrosion problem. My belief is that GM has been using inferior quality materials in an effort to cut costs. I also believe that later model trucks than the ones being investigated by NHTSA are also affected; the corrosion seems to start at about six or seven years. The 2010 NHTSA investigation focused on model years 1999 to 2003 because newer models had not yet started rusting. Internet complaints on later model years seem to confirm this hypothesis.
Given GM’s recent recall woes that compromised safety, the company has the obligation to assure that their vehicles are safe to operate. They should at least match the standard set by Subaru, which recalled their vehicles with rusting brake lines. GM should recall its trucks which are prone to brake line rust and correct the issue so that future generations of these vehicles do not have the same problems.
Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.