Amidst scandal, Congress shields General Motors’ negligence

Recent exposures of extensive defects followed by a systematic cover-up have led to a congressional hearing investigating the actions of General Motors and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Members of Congress have, almost unwillingly, exposed serious corporate criminality within GM and complicity within the NHTSA. At the root of this is not merely the set of actions of a few executives and so-called “regulators,” criminal though they may be, but in the pursuit of profit over human life.

GM has already recalled 2.6 million cars, according to The Wall Street Journal. Readers should take note that they should immediately follow all recall instructions. Recalls in general are only issued when an automaker’s bottom line is severely impacted, so the potential problem is likely to be serious.

As The New York Times recounts, the problems started in 2002 with GM approving an ignition switch that failed to meet its own safety and technical specifications.

A failure in this switch would very easily disable the engine, power steering, power brakes and air bags, increasing the likelihood of an accident. Things as simple as having weights on car keys or bumping the ignition with one’s knee caused these failures. A car where a catastrophic failure can occur with such ease is unfit to be on the road.

Disturbingly, the most frequently cited model affected, the Chevrolet Cobalt, is commonly driven by young drivers.

Nineteen-year-old victim Sarah Trautwein was killed in 2006 while driving her own Cobalt. Her father Bill Trautwein said that the ignition failure “would have probably freaked her out.” Young drivers would find it especially difficult to cope with the lack of power steering or power brakes.

“I think they should be held liable and go to jail. I think they’re murderers,” Sarah’s mother Renee Trautwein said of the GM executives.

In April 2006, a GM engineer modified the faulty ignition switch but kept the part number the same. Popular Mechanics notes that this “is a cardinal sin in [the] engineering world.”

This screams of a cover-up within GM – an insidious attempt to bury past failures and keep federal regulators out of the picture.

Ray DeGiorgio, lead design engineer for the switch, signed off on the change but denies all knowledge of his decision. He is still employed at GM.

The NHTSA, whose job is to investigate these exact types of incidents, was aware of some problems. It received multiple reports and hired crash investigators for two of the incidents.

Despite extensive evidence of systematic corporate wrongdoing, the NHTSA refused to launch a formal investigation.

Part of this points to deregulation – the budget of the NHTSA has fallen in real terms since 2002.

But more important is an economic system in which corporations are beholden only to their stockholders and the profit motive. Government agencies necessarily become facilitators in this, rendering any idealistic regulators impotent.

This includes senators on the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the legislators that suggested that GM could be criminally prosecuted, is a case-in-point.

Before questioning GM CEO Mary Barra, he opened his remarks with a pathetic, “I have enormous admiration and respect for your career and what you’ve accomplished, and I have enormous respect for GM, an iconic company.”

This behavior is not that of an advocate for consumers. Instead, Blumenthal merely disguises private interests’ culpability with praise and feigned indignation.

Trautwein and the other bereaved family members are much closer to the right course of action: “They should be held liable and go to jail … They’re murderers.”