Candor and cars

The federal government in effect has served notice on American industry that it will not tolerate refusal to be candid with Uncle Sam about the safety of its products.

The suit in question, an unusually forceful action by the US Justice Department, in effect accuses General Motors of having knowingly sold 1980 X-model autos with a potentially dangerous brake defect, and of having tried to hide this by providing false and misleading answers to the government's questions. The government wants GM to recall and fix all these cars, and as a penalty to pay $4 million to the federal treasury. The company denies the accusations and says it will fight the suit.

Regardless of the merit of this particular case, the government is making a welcome statement: that when safety of a product is in question the manufacturer must provide truthful answers to the federal agency involved, or risk court suit. This principle is an important protection for individual Americans, very few of whom have the necessary knowledge to judge whether a complicated piece of equipment, such as an automobile, is mechanically safe.

Of course it is far preferable that a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation exist between government and industry so that safety questions - and any others which are proper subjects for government oversight - can be resolved promptly and harmoniously.

Best of all is for industry to take such care in engineering and producing its products that from their first use they work both well and safely. In this regard, the domestic auto industry is on the right track now with its emphasis on quality. It appears that cars now are being made with significantly fewer defects than in previous years.

Not long ago quality problems had appeared to be the Achilles heel of the US auto industry, with the buying public switching to foreign-made cars in part due to a perception that they were much better made.

In the case of the X-cars, some consumer activists have complained for more than two years that brakes in some X-cars produced in 1979 and 1980 were defective. General Motors had recalled some 47,000 of the vehicles two years ago , and began recalling an additional 240,000 this past February. Rep. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado, has held hearings on the issue in a House subcommittee, and has accused the Reagan administration of foot-dragging on the issue.

Now the Justice Department wants all 1980-model X-cars recalled and their brakes repaired at GM's expense, including the vehicles previously recalled. If this is done, cost to GM could be some $170 million.

From initial postures on both sides it appears this case will have to be thrashed out in the courts. It is too bad when that becomes necessary. But if major and legitimate issues of protecting Americans' safety exist, it is good to know the government will take a stand. Now - if only cooperation and high quality standards will make that unnecessary in the future.

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