Subaru Recalled Vehicles With Brake Line Corrosion; GM Should, Too

General Motors has still yet to acknowledge that it has a problem with brake lines that are subject to rust on many of its vehicles. Model year 1999 through 2003 trucks, primarily the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, are currently under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and multiple complaints have come in for newer models up to model year 2007. It has now been about a month since we notified GM and NHTSA of the issue and requested a recall of vehicles that are putting motorists in harm’s way. I now suggest that GM look at how Subaru handled a similar issue with its vehicles so that this serious safety issue gets resolved.

It is not debatable that GM has far more complaints than any other manufacturer for brake failure from brake lines that burst due to corrosion. Whether you do a Google search on the topic or check NHTSA’s website, thousands of complaints can be found. GM’s defense on the problem to this point has been that all manufacturers have problems with brake line rust and the vehicles affected are older and still safe to drive, even if brake lines fail.

Is the denial of a problem with rusting brake lines at GM a cover-up or are they really not aware of the extent of the problem? I’ll give GM the benefit of the doubt that they are not aware since they are still trying to improve their inept management, particularly regarding safety and quality issues. But now that we determined that newer models are at risk of brake line rust, GM can no longer claim that this problem only plagues older models and they should take the proper steps to fix the problem. The evidence is available that far more owners of GM vehicles have been involved in scenarios where braking is lost due to the corrosion issue (obvious to most of us that this is an unsafe condition) than other manufacturers, but let’s move on to how Subaru handled its similar problem.

In March of 2013 Subaru recalled model year 2005 through 2009 vehicles that were prone to brake line corrosion. From Subaru’s letter to NHTSA regarding the issue, “Subaru’s investigation determined that these vehicles brake lines could perforate after exposure to 7 or more winter seasons.”

Interestingly, my research finds that GM’s affected vehicles are subject to brake failure at right around that same seven year mark. Some owners complained of failure even sooner. So Subaru didn’t think that this was a normal wear and tear item, as GM claims. Following is how Subaru addressed the problem and is what GM should use as a template. From Subaru’s NHTSA filing:

The remedy plan calls for dealers to inspect and determine the presence of brake fluid seepage around the brake line four-way joint connector. This is accomplished by depressing the brake pedal firmly during engine idle.

  • Scenario No. 1: If no brake fluid seepage is observed, the affected area will be rustproofed with anti-corrosion wax.
  • Scenario No. 2: If brake fluid seepage is observed, the original center and rear brake lines will be replaced with new ones followed by rustproofing with anti-corrosion wax.

The recall was for vehicles that were currently or previously registered in “Salt Belt States.” A GM recall for vehicles in only those same states would help to limit the expenses for GM, which seems to be prioritizing its recalls on cost rather than on safety.

Make no mistake about it, rusting brake lines in GM trucks is a safety concern and someone will eventually die as a result, if it hasn’t happened already. It is possible that there have been accidents involving loss of braking that overlooked the existence of the defect. There are existing recorded cases at NHTSA of accidents and injuries due to the sudden loss of braking caused by ruptured brake lines on GM vehicles but no deaths directly attributed, that I have found.

Owners of GM vehicles that experience brake line rust have been frustrated with their efforts at resolution. I am surprised that there has not been more media attention, as this is a widely-known problem. When we sent a letter to GM requesting a recall (followed days later by a letter to NHTSA), copies were sent to the following:

Eric Holder, Attorney General

Anthony Foxx, Secretary of Transportation

David J. Friedman, Acting Administrator, NHTSA

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Chairman, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Chairman, Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance

Rep. Fred Upton, Chairman, House Energy & Commerce Committee

Rep. Darrell Issa, Chairman, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

NHTSA continues to prove how ineffective it is with an ongoing investigation since 2010 and no expansion of that investigation to include later model years which have hundreds of complaints. The list of those aware of a problem that could lead to deaths is growing and no one seems to want to help get the GM trucks with corroded brake lines off the roads.

GM spokesman, Greg Martin, has not responded to my emails to him regarding the safety concern of rusted brake lines and GM CEO Mary Barra refuses to admit that there is a problem. While GM claims that there is a new culture at the company with a focus on safety, its actions speak otherwise. I now present the above precedent setting recall at Subaru as a suggested template and again call on GM, NHTSA and members of Congress (along with safety advocacy groups and auto industry journalists) to address the ongoing problem of corroding brake lines on GM vehicles.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.