General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra has made several trips to testify before Congress, most recently this month, about her company's defective ignition switches. The biggest headline-grabbing moment was her apology for the company's apparent 10-year coverup of the lethal problems. Hovering over Barra was the ghost of another momentous GM mea culpa, delivered to Congress nearly half a century ago.
On March 22, 1966, GM President James Roche admitted in a Senate hearing that the giant automaker had hired private detectives to follow and harass a young safety advocate, Ralph Nader, who had exposed defects in GM cars. In words of remorse strikingly similar to those Barra would use years later, he told the angry senators that he was "fully responsible" for the "unhappy episode." It was done "without my knowledge … I did not know."
Barra has found herself in a parallel situation because for a decade, GM failed to recall millions of cars with ignition switch flaws that could shut down the vehicles' electrical system in mid-travel, producing stalls, loss of power brakes and steering, and — deadliest of all — air bag failures in crashes. She was "deeply sorry," she testified in April: "I did not know." She has promised to change a decades-old GM "culture" that, she admits, has put dollars before consumer safety.
Roche's 1966 admission of guilt helped to fundamentally reshape the future of auto safety. It brought national fame to Nader and turned his book "Unsafe at Any Speed" into a bestseller. Nader sued GM for harassment. The corporation paid him nearly half a million dollars to settle the suit, which he used to fund his aggressive advocacy projects, starting with Nader's Raiders, a nemesis of corporate and government misbehavior. Later in 1966, the car companies were soundly rebuffed by Congress when they proposed that the industry be allowed to self-regulate. The damage done to GM's credibility by Roche's admission was an important factor in ensuring that a virtually unanimous Congress would pass a landmark law empowering the federal government to oversee auto safety.
But for those expecting the latest scandal to lead to similarly sweeping changes, a reality check is in order. Roche's apology was made when pro-consumer lawmakers had more influence and were better able to resist the power of huge corporations. In contrast, today's Congress is riven by political and ideological divisions that have marginalized pro-consumer forces and played into the agendas of big business. Barra's admissions and protestations of remorse thus are unlikely to lead to meaningful laws or a significant upgrade in regulatory staffing. Some members of the Senate have introduced legislation to criminalize aspects of the corporate misconduct revealed by Barra's testimony, but such legislation has little chance of success in the current congressional climate.
And even when safety laws are passed, they may not mean much. The deadly Ford Explorer rollovers linked to defective Firestone tires led to passage in 2000 of the TREAD Act, a law intended to discourage dilatory or inadequate recalls. Yet it failed to prevent Toyota from seriously delaying a fix to its cars with "sudden unintended acceleration" problems, nor did it deter GM from hiding its ignition switch defect for years.
Barra has sought to characterize the ignition switch coverup as a one-off — "an extraordinary situation … unique" — while assuring that there would be no more such deceit under her leadership. But she has also admitted that for years GM's culture — of which she is a product — has been one of putting profit ahead of safety. So it makes one wonder if the automaker may have concealed other serious defects from the public and regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It is hard to believe that a dollars-over-safety mind-set does not prevail at other car companies, given industry resistance to tough safety regulation and the emphasis on the bottom line. An example: For years, Chrysler resisted demands for the recall of Jeep Grand Cherokees with fuel tanks that could rupture too easily in rear-end crashes, creating serious fire hazards. A year ago, the company finally agreed to recall and fix some of the vehicles, but only when NHTSA belatedly insisted. Yet Chrysler still has not made the fixes.
NHTSA's acquiescence in such delays support arguments that it is too responsive to the cost-containment agenda of the auto companies. Its inability to effectively police the industry has almost certainly invited such profit-driven misconduct. Recently, a top agency attorney, in comments to an auto industry group, admitted that "the first line of defense against safety defects is not NHTSA." Rather, it is the auto companies themselves. "Our agency's job is to make sure your company is doing its job and to catch problems when it does not," he said, leaving unaddressed the obvious question of why the NHTSA failed for a decade to "catch" GM's ignition switch defect.
The answer to that question is that NHTSA is abysmally underfunded and understaffed, and lacks a foundation of tough laws to support its regulatory mission. Nothing in today's political environment suggests that is going to change soon.
Ben Kelley is a former Department of Transportation official and board member of the Center for Auto Safety. A version of this commentary also appears on the website for FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.