Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Safety Recalls and Real Safety




When an auto manufacturer releases a new model to market there is usually no doubt about the fact that they bear a certain amount of liability when it comes to product performance and safety. Every car company selling any kind mainstream automobile spends a great deal of time and money on research and development of safety and quality.

No matter how careful any company might be, sometimes they come up with an automotive system, or part of a system, or some other function that becomes troublesome once the car hits the market. Sometimes this is related to poor design, but usually it is related to poor quality parts. Durability can be hard to predict, except that usually parts that don’t cost as much, are the ones that are likely to fail. Considering how much influence accountants have in determining the composition of the final product, manufactures will take some short cuts here and there in the name of fiscal responsibility, only to have that decision come back and bite them.

This seems like a serious issue and in many ways it is. The automobile is a big expensive machine that we rely on tremendously. When it’s working properly we routinely take it for granted. When it isn’t working properly, it will ruin our day and lead to frustration. At its worst the dysfunction of the automobile leads to injury and death. This end is much more common than we seem to remember.

The number of things that can go wrong with a car and cause massive failure is so great that perhaps it is best the auto driving public doesn’t really understand. Whether a car is well built, or poorly built, it is just a machine and it is perfectly capable of failing in spectacular ways at any moment, yet we continue to drive them without giving all things proper consideration. We even bring problems on ourselves when we let them run out of gas while driving in traffic. Should we sue people that run out of gas, or maybe have them hauled to jail for public endangerment?

As an experienced automotive technician I can think of many problems related to the design and function of many makes and models that cause them to fail regularly, and sometimes while in traffic. This is extremely common and sometimes the problems are much worse than an ignition switch going open circuit in the middle of the road. If an ignition switch fails you can still steer the car to the side of the road.

Some Volkswagen and Chrysler products have major front end problems that can cause the front suspension to come apart while driving down the road. This is extremely dangerous because you might very well lose control of the vehicle, not because you panic at the failure but because the vehicle becomes physically impossible to control. Some of these models were recalled and some were not, and some might not fail in this manner until they have well over 100k miles on them. Do we not care about failures that occur outside the warranty time frame? Do we not care about failures on high mileage vehicles because only poor people drive those pieces of junk? Where do we draw the line, if indeed one must be drawn.

Honda issued an ignition switch recall several years ago that included a few models built in the late 90’s. These ignition switches were doing the exact same thing the GM switches are doing. Nobody ever accused them of covering up the problem but the recall certainly wasn’t big enough because many vehicles built before, and after the particular years included in the recall had, and continue to have problems. I own one of the vehicles not included in the recall and one day while driving down the freeway the car stalled. I pulled over, jiggled the key switch a few times, and the car started. At my nearest convenience I replaced the switch. Is there a lawsuit in there somewhere?

How many cars are on the road right now with bad tires? The numbers are certainly very high, but even worse is the fact that many people who know their car has bad tires refuse to do anything about it. Many times the tires have gone bad due to owner neglect. This is not the fault of anyone with deep pockets, this is simply due to the fact that most people are not meticulous in their car care. Should we sue them? Should the highway patrol setup check points for tires and impound every car stopped that is thought to be running on dangerous tires? What if a tire doesn’t last as long as the manufacturer says it will? What if they claim that tire should be good for 40k miles but it wears out at 35k? We could go on and on looking at these kinds of failures but just the notion of such would be silly.

Never mind defects and breakdowns, even without these things most people have a much higher risk of suffering injury or death due to the careless actions of themselves or others on the road. We however, generally go about our day never really thinking about this with the proper perspective. How many near misses does the average driver experience every year? We literally come closer to death at these moments than we do at any other time in our lives. All we do to handle the situation is honk the horn, exercise our middle finger, and by the time we have made it to our destination we have somehow already forgotten that we almost died just then.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 35,561 people died in traffic accidents in 2012. The number of these deaths where alcohol was involved is 10,322. The number of people who died in a wreck where driver distraction was to blame was 3,328. The number of injuries from accidents related to distracted driving was about 421,000. That’s right, 400k+ end up visiting the emergency room because some moron was on Facebook in traffic.

Why are we so concerned about the possibility of 13 deaths related to ignition switches in the Chevy Cobalt when nearly half a million people were injured last year because we refuse to keep our eyes on the road? It’s almost as if we accept the occasional text message in heavy traffic, but if a car company builds a machine that isn’t perfect 100% of the time, someone must be sued!

How can we attack auto manufacturers when we lost over 10,000 people on our roads due to something as insidious and widespread as drunk driving? Where is the greater evil here? Most of us have known others who have driven drunk and there is not a single solitary instance where we could point to it being a good idea. I have always been completely floored while listening to the casual manner in which a friend or coworker talks about the times they drove drunk. Driving drunk is a mistake every time it occurs just like texting and driving. Once again, some perspective is in order.

Let’s also not forget all of the legal and political issues that surround this latest scandal involving General Motors. GM was owned in large part by the federal government during the time that the cover up is alleged to have happened. Before GM was scooped up by the feds they were legally a completely different company. The GM that put junk switches in their cars is not the same GM that exists today. So the problem here is that according to the law, New GM is not liable for the actions of Old GM, and the government of course answers to nobody. In the case of lost confidence in a private company, consumers can walk away from products they don’t trust anymore, but nobody can escape the government.

Companies such as general Motors with their current ignition switch fiasco, or Toyota with their gas pedal problems from a few years ago, must do everything they can to make sure their cars are safe and work well. We should have some level of confidence in any major auto manufacturer that they will build their products to the best of their abilities. To do otherwise would mean the end of their business, and the end of the jobs of the tens of thousands of individuals who work for them.

So far in 2014 we are on pace to see a record number of recalls from the auto industry. No company is immune. GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, and Volkswagen have all recently issued large recalls. These recalls have for the most part been voluntary, why? Because each company really doesn’t want to lose the trust of the consumer. The sooner they can head off a potential problem, the better off the consumer will be, and the better off the company will be.

The loss of human life is always tragic. When a company causes harm to anyone, they should be held accountable if gross negligence, or conspiracy to keep quiet can be proven. Justice will prevail in the end, and any individual or company that lets self-interest stand in the way of doing what’s right, will pay a price. Even if no inept regulatory agency was there to execute some kind of punishment for the offending company, the company always suffers more when people quit buying their product.


One way or another this will be sorted out. In the meantime, don’t let the media hype get to you. As the old saying goes, “If it bleeds it leads.” Also, the media will always shoot at a big target every time one is presented, GM is just the latest big target on the rotation.

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