Charlottesville, Virginia


Email Greg Webb Greg Webb on LinkedIn Greg Webb on Facebook
Greg Webb
Greg Webb
Attorney • (800) 451-1288

GM Determines Steering Condition “Not a Safety Issue”

Comments Off

The year 2014 was, without any doubt, an awful year for GM. The auto manufacturer was in the hot seat most of the year. Public scrutiny, Congressional hearings and the largest fine ($35 million) ever assessed against an automaker for failure to recall a vehicle in a timely manner. The company has been talking about safety, transparency and commitment to quality as it tries to repair the damage done by its handling of the ignition switch defect that plagued millions of its cars and caused the loss of dozens upon dozens of lives.

This month, however, the public has learned about a new safety issue for GM. Last week we learned General Motors sent out technical bulletins in July of 2014 instructing dealerships to repair steering wheels that lock up after being driven for long periods of time.  But, reportedly, the dealerships were only to repair this defect if owners came in with complaints. The fix is a simple software update. Automobile owners were notified of the problem in November 2014, but there has been no recall so far. The problem was found in some 2013-14 Buick Verano, Chevrolet Cruze and Chevrolet Malibu models.  (NY Times, 4/10/15)

General Motors’ spokesperson, Alan Adler, indicates that the company feels no need for a recall, “Based on a very low rate of occurrence — ranging from less than one half to less than two incidents per thousand vehicles — and the fact that the condition is remedied when the wheel is turned, G.M. determined this was not a safety issue,” he wrote. (NY Times, 4/10/15)  An alleged “low rate of occurrence” should not be a valid reason to avoid repairing a significant safety defect, especially if it is a simple engineering software issue.

Federal regulators do not seem to be too worried about this either. NHTSA spokeswoman, Catherine Howden offers their rationale in an email to the New York Times, “Based on the bulletin and complaint narratives, the symptoms described would be a brief, perceptible change in steering feel that has little to no effect on the driver’s ability to safely steer the vehicle.”  (NY Times, 4/10/15)  Let’s hope so, and let’s also hope that the above logic does not resemble the logic GM and NHTSA used when evaluating the infamous ignition switch defect that raised its head more than ten years ago.

Howden quotes customers as using words like ‘stick’ and ‘slip’, leading her to conclude that the issue is not severe. But, this author would probably be quite worried if his steering wheel failed to navigate a turn, causing him to crash into something—as happened to one driver who was making a left-hand turn, at 15 miles per hour, when the steering wheel seized. The driver crashed into a sidewalk.  (NY Times, 4/10/15)  Is not steering a motor vehicle the most basic way of controlling it?  The most basic way of avoiding a crash, aside from, perhaps, braking?

Technical bulletins on service repairs are routinely issued to assist dealerships in repairing known issues. But in this case, given GM’s track record, is this actually the case? The basic question is this:  Can we trust GM?  If history is any indicator, one may reasonably conclude “no”.

As part of its investigation, the New York Times found seven recalls for serious safety issues that GM originally tried to handle through technical service bulletins. In some cases it was years before a recall was issued. GM was ‘admonished’ by federal regulators for the very same practice that could be happening now with the downplaying of steering wheel sticking issues. By the time we find out if GM is avoiding another costly repair issue lives may have been lost.  Perhaps NHTSA might take steps to verify the veracity of GM’s claim that this is no big deal.  As Ronald Reagan said, “trust, but verify”.