You’re driving at night in a General Motors compact car, a Cobalt or Cruze or Ion, and without warning the brakes, gas pedal and airbag suddenly give out. You hurtle into a tree and kill yourself. The police and forensic experts are in the dark about what happened and why. Your family asks questions, the auto company responds with a formulaic letter. What, who me? Sorry, could be any of a thousand unfathomable reasons, probably your husband, son or daughter was drunk and not paying attention.
If your family persists, GM lawyers come after you with threats to bankrupt you with legal costs. If you dare to hire an aggressive lawyer, GM quietly settles for an amount that is secret so that other, bereaved families won’t know that they’re part of a deadly, long term corporate conspiracy to keep killing motorists .
The crime scene as of now, taken from wire services, the NYTimes, WashPost, Reuters and Center for Automotive Safety:
Since 2004 — TEN YEARS AGO — General Motors has known they have a deadly problem in the guts of their small cars like the Cobalt built with UAW union labor in Lordstown, Tennessee. The “switch plunger” is so poorly designed that if your car key is on a heavy key chain or you’re a short person, the key easily slips to the “accessory/off” position or even locks thus paralyzing your brakes, gas pedal and undeployable air bags.
After at least nine “internal studies” the company knew it had a big problem about a faulty doohickey which it kept secret from its customers and, given its clumsy bureaucracy, possibly even from itself. To those customers who stayed alive to complain, GM quietly offered loaner cars. The main thing was to avoid law suits while not admitting or fixing the problem.
Glance at the diagram below (I hope it’s there) which shows both the old and new versions of the cheap critical component that, in its original design, simply was too short by 1.6 millimetres - the difference between life and death.
Its corporate back to the wall, sheer accumulation of deaths and accidents has forced GM to recall 1.6 million of its compact cars that are too unsafe to drive. To be precise, the Chevy Cobalt, Pontiac Pursuit, Pontiac Solstice, Pontiac G5, Saturns Ion and Sky. Plus a just-announced additional recall of almost one million small cars, plus 490,000 trucks and 172,000 more compact cars, meaning the automaker has now recalled almost five million vehicles in the United States during the first three months of the year, six times the number of vehicles it recalled in all of 2013.
Advice: if you own a GM compact get a qualified mechanic to check your ignition to see if it’s one of the older switches; if you must drive, use a single key unattached to a multiple key ring; barring that, grow half a foot or more.
Rep. Diane DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, calls for owners of these “terrifying” cars to stop driving them until they can be fixed, meaning installing the improved ignition switch, a repair that costs the astronomical sum of $30. Who pays for your loaner while your car is in the garage?
Legal note: the Obama administration’s 2009 bankruptcy bailout of GM stipulates that all product liability lawsuits filed on behalf of the injured or killed for crashes prior to 2009 are null and void.
Two shadows hang over this scandal: Kitty Genovese and Ralph Nader. In 1964 Ms. Genovese, a 29-year sports bar manager in Queens, New York, was stabbed to death while, allegedly, 38 neighbors heard her screams but refused to get “involved”. The actual facts turned out to be more complicated, but the “Genovese syndrome” passed into social psychology textbooks which, clearly, were not read by the folks at General Motors.
What stands out starkly is that for ten years masses of GM employees — lawyers, sales and service technicians, engineers, product development designers, ordinary Cobalt workers on the assembly line, knew, or had to have known, or suspected, or whispered among themselves about the killer ignition switch. At the crudest level when a GM worker bought one of these cars at a company discount and discovered the problem, how come he or she didn’t gossip about it? And if they did, who listened?
As far as we know, nobody blew a whistle. No one screamed bloody murder. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was practically invented by Ralph Nader’s crusade for safer cars, had a “massive information breakdown” by stonewalling, misreading, misrepresenting and ignoring reports of malfunction. Parenthetically, via the revolving door, I wonder how many retired NHTSA employees went to work for the auto makers they are supposed to regulate?
For many American liberals Ralph Nader is Judas for “spoiling” the 2000 presidential election with his 537 Florida votes and thus handing the White House to Cheney and Bush. We now know that GM’s malfeasance killed, officially 13 people and probably many more than the 300 cited by the Center for Auto Safety. How many thousands of Americans are alive today because of Ralph Nader and his Raiders’ tenacious battle for safer cars (seat belts, air bags, sturdier chassis etc.)?
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.)