GM safety scandal worsens, but US autos are safer

General Motors executives testify before Congress Tuesday over the automaker's handling of an ignition defect that eventually led to a widespread recall and at least 13 fatalities. The General Motors scandal may suggest otherwise, but cars in the US are much safer than they were even a decade ago. 

Paul Sancya/AP/File
The General Motors logo is on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. GM executives including CEO Mary Barra will testify before Congress Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

Things for General Motors haven't improved since late February, when the world's second largest automaker recalled 1.6 million vehicles worldwide that were equipped with faulty ignition switches.

In the weeks that followed, the federal government launched an investigation after GM admitted that it had been aware of the problem, which is responsible for dozens of accidents and at least 13 deaths, for nearly a decade without alerting authorities or the general public. The evidence that the automaker both knew about the seriousness of the problem and actively ignored it grows more voluminous and more damning by the day – earlier this week, after a Congressional memo found that the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) had twice declined to look into complaints related to the problem, NHTSA head David Freidman replied in a prepared Congressional testimony that GM had failed to share critical information that would have helped regulators identify the problem. 

Chief executive officer Mary Barra has launched into full damage control mode, apologizing publicly and making drastic changes to her company's safety oversight process. She hired Jeff Boyer as GM's new safety czar and soon announced three separate recalls for a spate of seemingly minor production flaws affecting an additional 1.55 million vehicles in the United States. (On top of that, GM recalled an additional 1.33 million vehicles Monday for faulty electric power steering, unrelated to the switch recall.) Ms. Barra and other GM executives appear before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in Congress Tuesday afternoon, and a separate Senate hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. 

Recent history suggests things will get worse for GM before they get better. Last month, Toyota was slapped with a $1.2 billion government fine and a criminal charge for its lack of transparency in dealing with an acceleration issue that eventually led to a recall of millions of its cars from 2009 to 2010. The ongoing investigation will ensure that the automaker's name remains in the news in a bad way for months, if not years.

GM's oversight, it appears, was atypically egregious, but such large-scale vehicle defects are starting to seem routine to those who follow car news with any regularity. There's a reason for that: US auto recalls surged 34 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Honda recalled at least 885,000 minivans the same week the government announced its investigation into GM. In February, Toyota recalled more than 1.9 million Prius cars because of a software glitch. Recalls of smaller numbers of vehicles – such as the recent 4,453 BMW motorcycles and scooters and 18,690 Dodge Durangos – are announced nearly every day of the week.

The good news is that this seemingly unending stream is actually a side effect of US automakers building safer cars, says Joe Phillippi, an industry analyst and president of AutoTrends Consulting in Andover, N.J. "Safety technology is a lot more democratic than it was even three years ago," he notes. "Now, even little cheap cars like a Mazda 3 compact have features that you could only get in [Mercedes-] Benzes and BMWs before. Lane departure warning systems, stability control, electronically controlled brake force distribution – nothing is exclusive to high-end cars anymore."

As cars become more complex, however, problems – and subsequent recalls – become more frequent. And as car parts become more expensive and complicated, there is less diversity in suppliers. For example, Faurecia, a large global auto producer, manufactures seats and other auto parts for Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford, and GM, among others. If, theoretically, something goes wrong with one of its products, it could prompt a recall affecting several automakers.

Nevertheless, driving in the US is safer than ever and continues to improve. The number of traffic fatalities fell 26 percent between 2005 and 2011 and 3.7 percent in the first nine months of 2013, according to statistics from the NHTSA, and an increasing number of those are due to nonvehicle factors like cellphone use.

Despite those improvements, critics are still questioning the strength of US auto safety regulations, especially since the GM switch problem went unaddressed for so long. "Here we are ... faced with accidents and tragedies, and significant questions need to be answered," House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R) of Michigan said in a press statement announcing the federal probe. "Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner? If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended."

Aside from lawmakers, Mr. Phillippi says, automakers are under myriad pressures to protect their reputations and quickly address any problems that arise. Watchdog groups like J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports yield enormous influence over buying decisions, and the rise of online forums and customer review sites means even the most minor complaints with a product get around very quickly. "Car companies get dinged now for everything, down to the way the cup holder feels," he says.

That could make it much harder for GM to recover, Phillippi notes, though he thinks that Barra and the company grasp the importance of being completely transparent going forward. "They'll be battling that cocktail party, word-of-mouth damage for a while, but they're doing their best to deal with this in a forthright manner."

As Toyota and now GM have painfully learned, there may be no other way in today's consumer landscape.

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