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Outrage of the Month: Auto Safety Regulators Ignore Danger Signal, Fail to Protect Consumers From Life-Threatening Defect

April 2014

Michael Carome, M.D.

During the past several weeks, the media has reported extensively on the failures of both a major company and a federal safety regulatory agency to heed clear warning signs of defective products that posed an unacceptable risk of serious injury and death to U.S. consumers. Inexcusable inaction over a period of many years by both the company and federal regulators appears to have contributed to numerous preventable deaths and injuries in unwitting consumers across the country.

You may think I am referring to a pharmaceutical or medical device company and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — the most frequent targets of criticism by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. However, in this case, the parties that failed to adequately protect public health are General Motors (GM) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Last month, GM — the nation’s largest auto manufacturer — announced a worldwide recall of more than 1.6 million cars because of a defective ignition switch (1.4 million of the affected vehicles were sold in the U.S.).[1],[2] The company acknowledged that it had linked 31 accidents and 12 deaths to the defective switch in six models, including 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-2007 Saturn Ions.[3],[4] The defective ignition switches apparently caused some cars to suddenly stall while driving, resulting in catastrophic shutdowns of power steering, power brakes, seat belt locks and air bags while cars were moving, in some cases at highway speeds.[5],[6]

The New York Times reported that the Justice Department has begun a criminal investigation into GM’s “decade-long failure to address deadly safety problems” before finally announcing the recent recall.[7] The Times noted that the federal inquiry is focused on whether GM “failed to comply with laws requiring timely disclosure of vehicle defects.” Federal prosecutors also are questioning whether the company “misled federal regulators about the extent of the problems.”

More disturbing are reports that the NHTSA received more than 260 complaints over the past 11 years related to GM cars suddenly turning off while driving, but the agency “declined to investigate the problem.”[8] The Times analyzed consumer complaints submitted to the NHTSA and found that since February 2003, the agency had received an average of two complaints monthly about potential dangerous shutdowns of GM cars, “but it repeatedly responded that there was not enough evidence of a problem to warrant a safety investigation.”[9]

Furthermore, the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader in 1970, commissioned a recent review of NHSTA safety data that revealed that 303 people died between 2003 and 2012 after air bags failed to deploy in crashes involving 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-2007 Saturn Ions.[10]

These reports regarding GM and the NHSTA paint a troubling picture, with striking parallels to numerous cases of inadequate action by pharmaceutical and medical device companies and the FDA in the face of red flags related to dangerous medical products.

Companies that put profits ahead of consumer safety must be held accountable. In addition, the American public deserves much better from regulatory agencies whose primary mission is to protect consumers and public health.

References

[1] Ivory D, Stout H. 303 deaths seen in G.M. cars with failed air bags. The New York Times. March 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/business/gm-air-bag-failures-linked-to-303-deaths.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[2] Undercoffler D. As many as 303 deaths linked to faulty ignition switches in recalled GM cars. Los Angeles Times. March 13, 2014. http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-autos-303-deaths-linked-to-recall-gm-20140313,0,4720511.story#axzz2wPFl5CKm. Accessed March 19, 2014.

[3] Ivory D, Stout H. 303 deaths seen in G.M. cars with failed air bags. The New York Times. March 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/business/gm-air-bag-failures-linked-to-303-deaths.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[4] Vlasic B, Protess B. Justice Department is said to look at G.M. actions on safety flaws. The New York Times. March 11, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/12/business/house-committee-demands-records-from-gm.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[5] Stout H, Ivory D, Wald ML. Auto regulators dismissed defect tied to 13 deaths. The New York Times. March 8, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/business/auto-regulators-dismissed-defect-tied-to-13-deaths.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[6] Ivory D, Stout H. 303 deaths seen in G.M. cars with failed air bags. The New York Times. March 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/business/gm-air-bag-failures-linked-to-303-deaths.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[7] Vlasic B, Protess B. Justice Department is said to look at G.M. actions on safety flaws. The New York Times. March 11, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/12/business/house-committee-demands-records-from-gm.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[8] Stout H, Ivory D, Wald ML. Auto regulators dismissed defect tied to 13 deaths. The New York Times. March 8, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/business/auto-regulators-dismissed-defect-tied-to-13-deaths.html. Accessed March 17, 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Friedman Research Corporation. Airbag non-deployment in fatal 2003-2007 Saturn Ion and 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt crashes. http://www.autosafety.org/sites/default/files/imce_staff_uploads/Friedman%20Research%20-%20Airbag%20Non-Deployment%20in%20Saturn%20Ion%20and%20Chevrolet%20Cobalt%20Vehicles.pdf. Accessed March 17, 2014.

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