Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

GM orders millions of cars recalled

Auto giant knew of one problem back in 2008

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DETROIT -- General Motors' efforts to root out lingering safety problems across its wide range of cars and trucks has produced another big recall -- and highlights a sudden shift at GM and throughout the industry toward issuing recalls instead of avoiding them.

The biggest U.S. automaker announced a total of five recalls covering 2.9 million vehicles -- including 204,000 in Canada -- Thursday.

The biggest involves 2.4 million mid-size cars from model years 2004 to 2012 with brake lights that can fail. Another will see more than 140,000 Chevrolet Malibus recalled to fix a problem with the power-assisted brakes.

GM acknowledged it knew about the brake light problem as early as 2008. That year it issued what's known as a technical-service bulletin, but that only required dealers to offer to fix the problem if the owner became aware of it. Such bulletins typically cover problems an automaker considers minor and avoid the larger cost of a recall. But a driver's safety could be jeopardized by unknowingly operating a car with a defective part.

In announcing the recall, GM said the brake-light problem has been tied to 13 collisions and two injuries. GM launched a top-to-bottom safety review after recalling 2.6 million small cars earlier this year for faulty ignition switches. GM knew about that problem for at least a decade, issuing service bulletins years before it started to recall the cars. The switch problem, which can unexpectedly shut down a car's engine, has been linked to at least 13 deaths and prompted multiple investigations, including one by the Justice Department.

"These additional recalls underscore how important it is to keep the pressure on GM to make sure the company is being as transparent as possible," said Sen. Clare McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who heads a Senate subcommittee looking into GM's handling of the ignition-switch problem.

The recalls could also add to scrutiny of federal safety regulators, who were criticized for their handling of the ignition-switch problem. Documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show neither the company nor the government sought a recall to fix the brake-light issue despite 1,300 consumer complaints and more than 14,000 warranty claims as of February of last year.

The agency said in a statement Thursday an investigation it opened into the problem last year influenced GM's decision to recall the cars.

Jeff Boyer, GM's newly appointed safety chief, said GM now will recall cars as soon as it sees a safety problem. The company, he said, has added 35 safety investigators to its team as it sifts through records looking for cars that should have been recalled earlier.

"We're not waiting for warranty trends to develop over time," he said. "It's not only about frequency, it has to be about seriousness of the potential defect as well."

GM has now recalled more than 11 million cars and trucks in the U.S. so far this year, close to its annual recall record of 11.8 million set in 2004.

The auto industry also is on track to set a single-year record for U.S. recalls. Companies have recalled 15.4 million vehicles in a little more than four months, government records state. The current single-year record for recalls is 30.8 million vehicles in 2004. Toyota, Ford, and Chrysler also have announced sizeable recalls this year.

Automakers are moving faster to fix problems than they have in the past in a bid to avoid bad publicity and record fines from government agencies.

"All manufacturers are recalibrating their recall programs to go from 'if in doubt, don't recall' to 'if in doubt, recall,' " said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department made Toyota pay a US$1.2-billion penalty and admit to concealing problems with unintended acceleration in its cars and trucks. That fine and the GM investigation -- which could bring criminal charges against individuals -- have changed the way automakers view recalls.

GM said the recalls announced Thursday also will fix problems with headlamps, power brakes and windshield wipers. The Detroit automaker will take a US$200 million charge this quarter, on top of a $1.3 billion charge in the first quarter, mostly to cover the repairs. GM shares fell 1.7 per cent to close at US$34.36.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2014 B12

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