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General Motors may already be parsing new recall decisions

The record number of automotive recalls last year affected millions of Americans across the country, including here in California. While numerous companies issued recalls, the most prominent example of automotive defects last year was provided by General Motors. Revelations that GM knew about and covered up its deadly ignition-switch defect for more than a decade have caused many Americans to drop any GM brand loyalty they may have had.

General Motors has assured both the government and the public that its recall policies and practices will be much improved going forward. Yet according to recent news reports, GM again seems to be prioritizing profits over safety.

In several GM models made within the last couple years, steering problems have been reported to GM and to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Specifically, vehicle owners have noted that after driving with the steering wheel in the straight-ahead position for a long time, the wheel can stick or lock up without warning, making it quite difficult to turn. At least 50 car owners have filed reports with the NHTSA.

This is obviously a defect that could seriously impact driver safety. In some cases, it could even be fatal. Yet because reports of injuries have been low or non-existent (so far), GM has decided that a recall isn't necessary.

Instead, GM has sent a "technical service bulletin" to dealers about the problem and how it could be fixed with a software update. Dealers are not obligated to let customers know about the available fix unless they come in with a complaint.

Sending bulletins is an attractive option for automakers because it is far cheaper than issuing a recall yet allows the companies to show that they are doing something to address a known problem. But GM has already been admonished by regulators for inappropriately using bulletins in the past. At least seven GM recalls related to serious safety issues had first been addressed in bulletins - some of which were issued years before the recall.

General Motors isn't the only automaker to engage in behavior like this. But given just how much scrutiny the company has faced in the last year, its cold calculation in this matter seems especially brazen. Should we believe GM's claim that it has become a more responsible company? Or is this all of the evidence we need to make up our own minds?

Source: The New York Times, "G.M. Deems Steering Issue Unworthy of Recall," Christopher Jensen, April 10, 2015

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