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General Motors and its Pattern of Incompetence

Despite all their attempts to convince us of the contrary, General Motors’ failure to act on news of their vehicles’ fatal defects seems to have been just as intentional as it was persistent.

Last week GM announced the recall of 3.16 million 2000-2014 midsize to large vehicles, putting their yearly total at over 20 million recalled vehicles. The particular reason for this recall is a faulty ignition switch that has a tendency to move out of the “run” position while the car is in motion, suddenly disabling the airbags and shutting off the engine.

An internal report compiled by former US Attorney Anton Valukas depicts a “pattern of incompetence” at GM that allowed for such long-term negligence. Valukas uses the term “GM nod” to describes instances where ideas were agreed on at meetings but never followed through. He also describes the fear held by employees like GM safety inspector Steven Oakley that by pushing too hard for safety improvements, one would, as in the case of former safety inspector Courtland Kelley, be “pushed out of the job.

“GM fought to have Courtland’s whistleblower lawsuit against them dismissed back in 2002, and ignored the over 100 complaints about Chevy Impalas that stall without reason that were submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. Because of their inaction in the face of this information, GM CEO Mary Barra has already been called to testify twice before a Congressional subcommittee, and the company has been fined $35 million so far for a recall that took place earlier this year.

It’s welcome news that GM is finally being taken to task for their wrongdoing and whistleblowers like Courtney Kelley can find some vindication for their bold actions. However, it’s frightening to think of how a company that prides itself on a “safety-first culture” could actively repress information about significant defects in its products. How many deaths would it take for GM to police itself?

Even now that GM is being forced to take action, it’s hard not to be skeptical about the new precautions they’re taking. Rather than repairing or replacing the faulty ignition switches in the millions of vehicles they’ve recalled this year, they’ve chosen to only add an insert to the head of the keys to make them less likely to switch off.

Sources: “About GM,” General Motors.

Dee-Ann Durbin and Tom Krishner, “GM Could Face Another Fine for Impala Recall,” ABC News, June 19 2014.

Tim Higgins and Nick Summers, “GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower,” Businessweek, June 18 2014.

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