Product Recalls | 2/5 | Console & Hollawell Blog
If you think your new car is perfectly safe, this might make you think again. Automaker Hyundai ended the month of July by recalling more than 880,000 cars from years 2011 to 2014 and thousands more 2015 cars for safety reasons. The two separate recalls involve Hyundai’s popular Sonata model and defects that could cause serious collisions.
You may have heard that new cars depreciate in value as soon as you drive them off the lot, but you probably weren’t counting on a safety recall weeks after buying your 2015 car. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Recalls (and Cars) Keep Rolling On
What if you stopped your car, shifted into “park” gear, and then suddenly found your vehicle rolling away? That’s what could happen to 883,000 Hyundai Sonatas with model years from 2011 to 2014. In these cars, the transmission-shift cable can become detached from the shift-lever pin – which means, in simpler terms, that the vehicle may not really be in the gear that it’s supposed to be in. This is no small problem, as it “could increase the risk of a crash,” reported Reuters.
So far, no collisions or injuries have been reported, Hyundai told the media, but it has received upwards of 1,100 warranty claims and seven “incidents” – whatever that means. The possibility of a car simply rolling away, with or without the driver inside, is just one of the potential problems. Cars could also move in the wrong direction. Drivers may find themselves unable to shift gears after parking the car, leaving them stranded.
Hitting the Brakes on 2015 Cars
If you purchased a new Hyundai Sonata in the last couple months, your car could be part of yet another recall. About 5,650 of the 2015 vehicles have been recalled for potential brake problems. The brake calipers in the front of these cars can snap or crack, which could prevent brakes from working correctly and lead to accidents. This could lead to all kinds of accidents, some of them serious. Drivers could strike the cars in front of them, crash into buildings, or find themselves unable to slow down adequately when turning and collide with other cars.
Fortunately, this danger became apparent so early on that no accidents or injuries have yet been reported. Also fortunately, fewer than 200 of these brand new vehicles have even made it off dealership lots and into the driveways and garages of owners so far, Automotive News reported. The yet unsold cars won’t be sold until repairs are made, according to a Hyundai spokesperson.
What to Do About Recalls
The dozens of recalls issued so far in 2014 have been not only high-profile, but massive. Since February, General Motors (GM) has recalled more than 28,000,000 cars, many for a problem related to faulty ignition switches and keys. In June, eight other major automakers recalled millions of cars for defective air bags made by a company called Takata. July brought a recall of nearly 800,000 Chrysler Jeep SUVs. This is still far from an exhaustive list.
With recalls abounding across seemingly all car makes and models, it’s essential that you know what to do in the event that your car is involved in a safety recall. If you receive a recall notice for your Hyundai Sonata, please don’t ignore it. In the cases of both recalls, the necessary repairs are free to drivers. Even if you haven’t received a notice but still suspect your car could be included, you can use SaferCar.gov to find out for sure.
If there truly haven’t been any accidents or injuries yet related to these defects, let’s all do our part keep it that way.
We’ve heard a lot about faulty ignition switches this year, but it turns that General Motors (GM) isn’t the only car manufacturer having problems with them. Chrysler announced Tuesday that it, too, was recalling cars with ignition switch problems. The ignition switch may seem like such a small part of the vehicle, but as previous 2014 recalls have illustrated, defects in this auto part can have serious consequences.
The new Chrysler recall involves model year 2006 and 2007 Jeep Commanders and model year 2005 (pictured) through 2007 Grand Cherokees. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
The Chrysler Recall’s Details
The recall involves nearly 800,000 Jeep SUVs, TIME reported. In recalled models, a problem with the ignition switch could shut off the engine and disconnect power to the steering wheel, brakes, and air bags. The ignition switch is vulnerable enough that if a driver’s knee hits the key, it could jostle the switch into the off position, much like the keys and ignitions involved in the GM Camaro recall announced in June. So far, this defect has been linked to just one accident and no injuries, according to NBC News.
Looking on (and Beyond) the Bright Side
I’m grateful that, at least as of now, it seems that no one has gotten hurt because of this manufacturing mistake. But I also know that the situation could have been worse. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to imagine how truly dangerous a problem like this can be. At least 13 people lost their lives in the dozens of accidents linked to GM’s ignition switches that were plagued by similar problems. It could have been just a matter of time before more accidents happened or simply a stroke of good luck that more people didn’t get hurt in collisions involving these cars.
What You Can Do to Stay Safe
With car recalls abounding and ignition switches a top concern of 2014 safety recalls, you might be wondering what you can do to stay safe. First of all, you can find out if your car was included in this or any other recall by visiting SafeCar.gov. If you drive one of the recalled vehicles, make an appointment to get the problem repaired as soon as possible. Dealerships should fix the safety issue for free, so it’s not costing you anything. In the meantime, remove all additional keys, key chains, key fobs, and remotes from your ignition key and adjust your seat so that your knees can’t accidentally come into contact with the key in the ignition switch.
If you were hurt in an accident and the circumstances resemble this or any other safety recall, you may have legal rights to pursue compensation for your injuries. You owe it to yourself to find out if an automaker’s defective part was behind the collision that changed your life, and to hold the manufacturer accountable if so.
If you’re using the NutriBullet 900 blender to turn your foods into “superfoods,” you could be getting more than nutrition – and more than you bargained for. Consumer Reports found that the blades cracked in two of the devices tested during the publication’s durability test, Today reported. If you’re drinking out of the container, these pieces of sharp metal blades can be a real safety hazard.
The blender is designed so users can drink from the container – but if the blades crack, you could find yourself ingesting metal shards along with that smoothie. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Predicting What’s Next for NutriBullet
So far, neither the makers of the NutriBullet nor the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has announced a recall – yet. If history is any indication, though, recalls are a possibility. Consumer Reports encountered a similar problem with a past test of another blender, the Calphalon XL 9-speed, and the discovery ultimately led to a recall.
Even in the absence of a recall, Consumer Reports is making its standpoint clear by labeling the item a “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk.” The publication goes a step further, urging people who have already bought the device to “stop using it.” There are no reports of injuries linked to the blenders so far, but this warning could still be too late for the consumers who have already been injured by the product but who didn’t know who to report the incident to or even whether they have any legal rights at all.
Consumer Safety is the Manufacturer’s Responsibility
Product manufacturers have a duty to make products that don’t harm users, and consumers have the right to expect that the devices they purchase will be free of dangerous defects like defective and fragile blades. You shouldn’t have to worry that your blender – when used correctly – could break without warning and cut your mouth as you try to drink from the container. It’s one thing if you cut yourself while trying to reach inside an assembled and powered-on blender, and another thing entirely when you get hurt while using the device according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Drinking out of a container shouldn’t be dangerous.
Often, consumers don’t know their rights. They’re not sure who to contact when a product they’ve purchased develops a dangerous defect. They may blame themselves when it’s really the manufacturer at fault. Some consumers may just assume that the individual product they purchased is faulty, a “lemon,” and not realize that the defect they have encounters is part of a larger problem. When consumers brush off a safety hazard as “not a big deal” or dismiss an incident that “could have been worse,” they are letting product manufacturers who neglect their responsibilities to consumers off the hook.
You do have legal rights when it comes to defective products, especially when they cause you injuries. You can hold the manufacturer accountable for the harm the product has done to you and your family. So if you got hurt because of a defective NutriBullet or other product, get legal help – you’ll need it. If you had a close call, take it seriously. Report the incident to the CPSC. Your actions just might stop someone else from getting hurt.
Monday was a busy day for General Motors (GM). Already this year, the car manufacturer has recalled 20,000,000 cars. Between the recalls and the investigations into why it took a decade for GM to act on its knowledge of a serious defect linked to at least 13 deaths, it seems the company has made news headlines at least once a week. Now GM has announced yet another recall, this time of more than 8,000,000 cars, along with the company’s plans to compensate the families of victims killed as a result of the automaker’s faulty ignition switches.
Announcing another Recall
This latest recall extends to an additional 8,450,000 cars in North America, bringing the total number of cars recalled by GM this year to about 29,000,000, according to The Wall Street Journal. Again, we’re seeing calls recalled long after they’ve been on the road. Some of these newly recalled vehicles have model years as old as 1997, Forbes reported.
Once again, the ignition switch is to blame, at least for some of the problems. One official cause of the recall is described as “inadvertent ignition key rotation,” while others include a “possible electrical short in the driver’s door module” and “overload in the feed [that] may cause the underhood fusible link to melt due to electrical overload.” By including midsize cars like the Cadillac CTS (model years 2003 to 2014), the Chevrolet Malibu (years 1997 to 2005), and the Pontiac Grand Prix (years 2004 to 2008), the newest recall shows this isn’t just a small car problem. The flaws responsible for the recall have been linked to three deaths and eight injuries sustained in seven accidents, The Wall Street Journal reported. GM maintained that there “is no conclusive evidence that the defect condition caused those crashes,” according to CNN.
GM isn’t the only automaker plagued by recalls this year. In fact, more than 40,000,000 cars have been recalled across the United States in just the first half of the year, according to U.S. News & World Report. The manufacturer has, however, been the subject of investigations and an eight-figure fine for failing to address the deadly ignition switch problem despite knowing about the issue for more than a decade. It just so happened that GM made another high-profile announcement Monday: its plan for compensating families of victims who died as a result of the recalled parts.
A Million Dollars Doesn’t Stretch as Far as You’d Think
Also on Monday, Kenneth Feinberg – alternately referred to as GM’s compensation expert, consultant, compensation plan administrator and director of the compensation fund – elaborated the company’s policy going forward in regards to paying out personal injury and wrongful death claims related to the previous recalls. Attorneys for claimants have estimated the number of deaths associated with these defective cars to be closer to 100 than the 13 GM has so far acknowledged, but Feinberg simply said that he did not know the total number of victims, according to U.S. News & World Report. These figures don’t include victims who survived with injuries, which could number in the hundreds.
A few of the details highlighted in the announcement, as reported by National Public Radio (NPR), include:
- There is no cap on the total cost of the payments GM will make to claimants.
- GM will not have a role in deciding claimants’ eligibility and payout amounts, and it will have no power to appeal those decisions.
- Claims won’t take into account driver negligence, but they also won’t compensate victims for property damage or emotional suffering.
- Think you might have a claim? Act fast. As of right now, claims must be submitted between August 1 and December 31, 2014. Those few months can fly by quickly, and you could be out of luck when it comes to getting the money you deserve.
For families of victims who lost their lives as a result of the dangerous car defects, payouts will start at $1,000,000, The New York Times reported. While that may sound like a lot of money without context, it’s less than it seems. Consider that a 20-year-old victim with a full working life ahead of him or her – figure 45 years to retirement age – could have earned a million dollars over a lifetime just by making an annual salary of less than $23,000. For higher earning victims, a million dollar settlement doesn’t cover the income that they would have earned to support their families. That’s not including the expenses associated with a funeral and final arrangements, the potentially high costs of medical bills incurred while emergency personnel and medical professionals tried to save the victim’s life, or very real suffering of family members who no longer have the companionship and help of their loved one. Even without knowing the particulars of these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of these claims result in payouts well above the million dollar starting point.
While NPR states that some payments for survivors would be expected to bring in just thousands of dollars, it’s certainly possible that those with the most serious and permanent injuries could ultimately get more than $1,000,000 in compensation, too. A surprising and startling bit of information you learn when working in personal injury law is that people who die in accidents often get less compensation – going to their estates or families, of course – than do seriously injured survivors of accidents. One reason is that people who are tragically killed don’t themselves have future medical needs to worry about.
One of the hardest things about personal injury and wrongful death cases is the question of how to put a dollar amount on something as priceless as a life or a person’s quality of life. The sad truth is that nothing can bring back the victims who died in accidents or the health of the irrevocably harmed survivors. What compensation can do is help family members through the difficult financial stresses caused by their loss – and, in cases like these, just knowing that the negligent company is being held accountable can sometimes help victims and loved ones find some peace.
Just call 2014 the year of car recalls. So far, 30,000,000 cars have been recalled in just the first half of the year. Massive recalls by automaker General Motors (GM) have gotten the most press, due to both the sheer volume of affected vehicles and the allegations that the company covered up potentially deadly ignition switch defects for a decade after knowing about them. Toyota, too, has recalled millions of cars. However, it seems that no automaker is above manufacturing vehicles with faulty parts. In late June, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, and Nissan – and Toyota, again – announced an air bag-related recall of 3,000,000 cars, The New York Times reported.
In crashes, correctly working air bags save lives – but when they deploy at random or send shrapnel through the fabric of the bag and into a victim’s body, they are dangerous.
This rash of recalls from numerous auto manufacturers is no coincidence. All seven automakers got air bags from a company called Takata Corporation, which manufactures one in five air bags worldwide. Takata is no newcomer, having been in the air bag business since 1988 despite what The New York Times called “a spotty safety record.” Yet in the past five years, 10,500,000 cars have been recalled because of problems with air bags produced by Takata, according to Reuters. To put the situation in perspective, air bags have been a factor in the recall of at least 10,000,000 of the 30,000,000 – one in three – recalled cars so far this year, The New York Times reported. The problems are serious, and unfortunately, recalls might not be enough to get cars with dangerous parts off the road for long enough to repair the problems.
The Unreliability of Recalls
The recall stems from an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) into three reports of air bag ruptures that caused injuries. Ultimately, the investigation linked at least 30 injuries and two deaths to the air bags in question, The New York Times reported. Some of those injuries were very serious, including damage to major arteries that later resulted in severe complications such as strokes and seizures.
There’s no question that injuries like these have the potential to be life-changing. However, given the abysmal success rate of most recalls – less than one-third of recalled consumer products of any kind are ever turned in for refund or repair – there’s a good chance this recall won’t manage to get all of these potentially disastrous vehicles off the road and into dealership repair shops to fix the problem. No matter how early on they are issued, safety recalls can’t make us nearly as safe as ensuring car quality before the cars arrive on the road would.
Is Car Quality Declining?
With the dozens of recalls already announced this year, the natural question to ask is whether the quality of our cars is actually worse than it used to be – and it is, according to MSN. “The sudden surge in recalls this year comes at the same time the overall quality of new cars, trucks and crossovers has shown an unexpected decline,” the news source said, basing its statement on the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. The number of reported problems jumped three percent this year from last year. In the early days of ownership, the biggest culprits in this increase were issues with vehicle exterior, heating and air conditioning, and devices used for entertainment, navigation, and communication.
Long-term quality ratings are down, too. The three-year review of 2011’s new cars indicates more problems than previous years, according to the J.D. Power 2014 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study. And then there are the serious safety defects that go unrecognized for years, even decades, as was the case in so many recent recalls by GM, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and others.
The modern car industry has more advanced technology at its disposal than ever before. There’s no reason for quality to be dropping, especially when it comes to safety. I hope these enormous recalls and the immense price tag of fixing the cars shocks the automotive industry into investing more time and money into making cars safe and well-built before they hit the roads from now on. Otherwise, we’re likely to see more preventable injuries and deaths over the coming years.
Earlier this month, General Motors (GM) – the automaker that has issued dozens of recalls through the first half of 2014 – announced a recall of more than 500,000 Chevrolet Camaros. This brings the total number of 2014 recalls for GM to 44 (as of this writing) and the total number of recalled cars made by GM to a whopping 20,000,000, ABC News reported.
With the sheer volume and frequency of high-profile recalls, you would think that affected drivers might be at least a little bit concerned. Yet I’ve seen some drivers dismiss the issue as “just a key problem.” It’s worth noting that in previously recalled cars, a somewhat similar issue – “just” an ignition switch problem, I guess – with similar results is believed to be responsible for killing at least 13 people.
The most recent recall involves half a million Chevrolet Camaros with model years from 2010 to 2014. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Different Parts, Same Problems
The problem that necessitated the Camaro recall is that a driver could bump the keys with their knee while driving. Just that seemingly small amount of pressure could change the position of the ignition switch, inadvertently shutting off the engine while the car is in motion, MSN reported. What happens when the engine power cuts off? Possibly the loss of the ability to use power steering, power brakes, and even air bags. The car can become uncontrollable, and when it finally does stop, the failure of airbags means that helpless passengers have lost their last line of defense.
Sound familiar? It should. GM’s problems this year began in February, when the company first began recalling millions of cars – some a decade old – for dangers posed by faulty ignition switches. The problem with these defective switches is that heavy key chains – and for that matter, even the little bit of weight from the key fob that GM supplied with the car keys – could put too much stress on the ignition switches, leaving them vulnerable to shift position and turn off the engine while the car was in motion. The problems associated with this recall, too, were loss of control over the power steering, power brakes, and air bags. The parts responsible for the failure are technically different, but the serious consequences remain the same.
Do We Drivers Dismiss Automakers from Responsibility?
In the case of those early 2014 recalls, GM found itself in trouble after news surfaced that the company had known about the problem for a decade but never attempted to fix the potentially dangerous cars. At least 13 deaths and more than 50 crashes were blamed on the flaw. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined GM $35,000,000. The outrage from victims’ families, safety and consumer groups, and the public was clear.
After that decade-long, deadly mistake, things are changing for the better. Government agencies are holding GM accountable. The automaker dismissed 15 employees in connection with the fatal defect and years-long failure to address it. Victims and families are being compensated. The fact that GM’s recalls now involve newer models at least indicates that instead of covering up the problem and letting it harm innocent people, the company is now trying to address defects before people get hurt. So far, the Camaro key issue has been linked to just three crashes and four injuries, all of them minor. The right time to announce a recall is now, before someone gets seriously hurt.
As a personal injury attorney, I find it concerning to think that just as an automaker is showing a commitment to prioritizing safety over pure profit, the very drivers put in danger by their mistake are instead saying, “No thanks, don’t worry about our safety. We’ll take our chances.” There may be government agencies and consumer watchdog groups, but ultimately if we consumers tell automakers that we don’t care if they risk our lives, we’re only encouraging them to lower their safety standards in the future.
Considering the frequency with which automakers have recalled cars so far in 2014, you might think that the recall system was a raging success. After all, who hasn’t heard of at least one major recall this year? It seems that nearly every major car company has had at least one: Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Chrysler, Ford, Dodge, Nissan, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz, BMW, and of course General Motors (GM), with its high-profile recalls of millions of vehicles.
Yet the cars themselves aren’t the only dangers. What about recalled parts, like tires, which continue to remain on our streets long after the first announcements are issued? For months after recalls, defective tires continue to endanger everyone on the road and illustrate something we would all like to forget – that our nation’s safety recall system regularly underperforms, at times to the point of being a total failure.
Can you say, without a doubt, that you are 100 percent certain that the tires on your car right now have never been recalled? Do you even know what type, size, and brand of tires are on your car at the moment?
A Deadly Problem
Once upon a time, a tire was recalled for safety reasons. These tires were to be replaced on vehicles and removed from store shelves. The goal was to get them off the road permanently.
But that didn’t happen. Four months after the recall, a fatal Florida accident that killed two church leaders and injured several youth church members was linked to the tires, according to ABC News. Apparently, neither the church which owned the van nor the mechanic was aware that the tire was dangerous or was supposed to be replaced, despite the recall. Investigative reporters did some digging, only to find that the dangerous, recalled tires were still for sale in multiple cities.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident and the larger issue of how recalled tires remain on the road, but really, should any of this have been such a surprise? “Only about one out of five recalled tires is actually returned to the manufacturer,” ABC News reported.
The other 80 percent of those dangerous tires must be out there somewhere.
Reflecting Larger Recall Failures
Of course tire safety matters. Tire problems result in hundreds of deaths each year. Yet this tragic accident and the recall that should have prevented it (but didn’t) simply reflects a frightening landscape of recalls across all product types. Recalls of consumer products, too, have an abysmal success rate. Less than one-third of all recalled consumer products ever make it back to their manufacturers, according to Today. The rest remain at large, likely to harm an unsuspecting consumer.
Even with major purchases and major recalls, the success rate is slim. Take the massive GM recall of 2,600,000 cars for faulty ignition switches that could cut off power to the engine, steering, and airbags. GM is optimistic that 80 percent of the recalled cars will eventually be fixed, but more critical experts expect the number to be closer to half, CNN reported. Even if 90 percent of the recalled cars are repaired, that would still leave a quarter of a million dangerous vehicles on the road.
Why We Don’t Notice Recalls
Most people consider tires a relatively large purchase, one that costs hundreds of dollars. But what about the smaller purchases you make – things like children’s toys, over-the-counter medications, groceries, beauty products, and home items? You may not think twice about purchasing these everyday items. For many of them, you probably don’t even keep your receipt. There’s no record of your purchase and no registration on the product. If it’s ever found to pose a serious safety hazard, you won’t know about it – not unless you happen to hear about the recall on the news. By the time that happens, there’s a good chance you’ve already disposed of the packaging and couldn’t check your purchased item against the recalled item even if you wanted to.
Even if you receive a mailed or emailed notice about a recall, will you act on it? Every day, consumers are so bombarded by spam and advertising materials that it’s as though corporate America has cried wolf. Even when our companies have something legitimately urgent to say, we’re conditioned to believe they’re just trying to sell us on another product. Important notices slip through the cracks when our mailboxes are too full of junk mail.
At least some of the blame falls on what ABC News called a “badly-flawed and archaic government recall system,” but perhaps the problem isn’t so easy to solve. After all, do you want corporations or the government tracking your every purchase, even more than they already do? Short of requesting an I.D. for every single purchase, no matter how small, it’s hard to envision a recall system that would be truly effective in making sure that every purchaser of a product knows about relevant recalls. The only sure way to get dangerous products out of the hands of consumers is to stop them from ever getting to the market in the first place. Once defective products are out there, by become a danger to us all – especially if recall procedures aren’t followed thoroughly.
Automaker General Motors (GM) has been in the news a lot recently, and the troubled company has proven that bad publicity is still, in fact, bad publicity. After a massive recall of 1,600,000 vehicles for faulty ignition switches beginning in February 2014, GM has just announced yet another safety-related recall. This time, the 51,640 SUVs affected have defective fuel gauges that could allow cars to run out of gasoline suddenly while their unsuspecting operators still believe they have plenty of fuel left. Whether it’s by causing cars to stall unexpectedly, disabling power steering systems, or cutting electricity to airbags, defects like these put every driver on the road in danger of suffering serious, permanent, and even deadly injuries.
For drivers of affected GM vehicles, trusting the fuel gauge could prove dangerous. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
A History of Recalls
In the previous GM recall, a problem with the ignition switch could shut off the vehicle’s electrical power without warning, disabling power steering, power brakes, and even airbags. Drivers could find themselves totally losing control of their vehicles, without so much as the protection of airbags to protect them when they crash. GM has acknowledged that the problem caused at least 31 accidents and 12 people deaths, but the Center for Auto Safety commissioned a study that identified more than 300 deaths linked to airbags that failed to deploy, The New York Times reported. This suggests that the actual number of fatalities related to this defect and others like it could be far more than a dozen. Though GM knew about the problem as early as 2004, the affected and potentially dangerous cars were never recalled until 2014.
The next recent GM recall concerns a defective fuel gauge. Faulty software means that the number displayed on the gauge could be inaccurate by as much as a quarter of a tank in either direction. If the gauge tells drivers prematurely that their gas tank is empty, the problem is merely an inconvenience. When the device errs in the other direction, it becomes dangerous. A driver who has no idea that he or she is about to run out of gas could easily find the car stalling suddenly in the middle of the road, unable to get safely out of the way of traffic. A resulting accident can cause very serious injuries, especially if the other car is still moving at a high rate of speed when the collision occurs.
The Cost (and the Lesson)
Certainly, GM is experiencing some tough luck, with this series of recalls one after another. Just this week, the company announced yet another recall of 59,628 of its Saturn Aura cars, this time related to a problem with a transmission cable, Reuters reported. The cost of the recalls so far – $1,300,000,000 – already has eclipsed the company’s profits for the first three months of 2014. With these new recalls looming, those recall-related expenses are likely to grow.
Still, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for a company that covered up a deadly defect for a decade. Fixing the problem back in 2004 could have saved the company money, because there would be far fewer cars to recall and fix right now. My hope is that the big price tag will remind other automakers as well as those currently in power at GM that fixing safety problems sooner rather than later really is better for their bottom lines. Otherwise, car buyers, drivers, passengers, and everyone sharing the road with them will remain at risk while companies put profits ahead of safety.
Imagine that you’re driving along on an ordinary day when something happens that’s anything but typical. Your car’s ignition abruptly switches itself off. The engine stops working. You try to steer yourself to safety, but nothing happens. You hit the brakes, but even they don’t respond. You’re at the mercy of an out-of-control car careening through an environment that has suddenly turned dangerous. All you can do is panic in the moments before colliding with one of the other cars, trees, telephone poles, or buildings that have become obstacles. The impact of the crash throws you face-first into the steering wheel. Even the airbag, your last line of defense, has failed you.
The drivers of General Motors (GM) vehicles who were involved in crashes like these – exactly how many drivers depends on who’s counting – didn’t have to imagine. They lived this nightmare, and as many as 303 people died from it, according to recent reports.
But at least it only took 10 years for the manufacturer to do something about it.
Who Knew What, and When
In February 2014, GM recalled several vehicles manufactured between 2003 and 2007 with faulty ignition switches that could turn off engines, power breaks, and air bag functioning. Clearly, these vehicles should be fixed immediately – except that the parts, which TIME reported cost the manufacturer as little as $2 to $5 apiece, aren’t available yet. And they won’t be available until April.
GM’s temporary solution? For the time being, drivers should remove all keys and key chains from their ignition keys, including the key fob GM provided at purchase. Apparently even that tiny piece of hardware can put the ignition switch at risk.
Just days ago, GM reported to The Wall Street Journal that it knew of the problem as early as 2001, contradicting earlier claims that the company didn’t learn about the danger until 2004, when it was preparing to launch a new model. “An engineering inquiry was opened but later closed after determining it would take too long and cost too much to fix,” The Wall Street Journal reported. I’m sure this sentiment brings great comfort to the families of the people who allegedly died because of this safety risk.
Whether GM learned of the problem in 2001 or 2004, the company had more than enough time to issue recalls and change the design, which it didn’t bother to do until 2007. GM has known for a decade or more about the danger, but only now has decided to issue a recall.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), too, has acted so slowly that judging by their lack of urgency, you wouldn’t know the defect was a dangerous safety hazard at all. The regulating body, from whom the Center for Auto Safety collected the crash data to analyze, was aware of complaints related to the current recall as early as 2006, yet claimed to have “insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation” at that time. Watchdog groups aren’t buying these excuses. “NHTSA claims it did not do an investigation because it did not see a defect trend… The only way NHTSA could not see a defect trend is if it closed its eyes,” said The Center for Auto Safety in a letter.
The Death Toll
GM admits that 12 people have died and 31 accidents have occurred as a result of this defect in its vehicles. But that might not be the full story. The Center for Auto Safety reported a far different number of deaths involving these vehicles in which airbags should have deployed but didn’t: 303, according to The New York Times.
Twelve deaths are too many. Even one is too many. But if the Center for Auto Safety is right, literally hundreds of people lost their lives in accidents that could have been easily prevented.
What went on in this decade-long instance is exactly what’s not supposed to happen. Cars are such useful inventions that drivers often forget how dangerous they are, but the makers of those cars have no excuse to ever neglect safety. Manufacturers should be the first to act to resolve a problem. After all, they have a lot to lose if the cars they sell develop a reputation for killing their drivers. But instead of addressing the problem at the very first sign of trouble, it seems both the manufacturer and the regulating agency chose inaction, allowing more possible accidents and deaths to happen.
This isn’t right. GM’s customers deserve better. The people driving around them, unaware that the car in the next lane is a ticking time bomb, deserve better. And if you or someone you love is a victim of a faulty ignition switch, you deserve compensation for all you have lost and the peace of mind of knowing that the people responsible are finally answering for their actions.
Have you noticed more vehicles around you driving with blown-out brake lights in the last few years? It’s no coincidence. New Jersey lawmakers have noticed it, too. They’re in the process of revamping current laws, which only require that two of a vehicle’s brake lights are working at a time, even though all modern cars are required to have three brake lights. To some, it may seem like a simple problem and a silly law. Unfortunately, the problem indicates a deeper issue: a change in how drivers across the state prioritize safety-related auto repairs now that state-required inspections no longer focus on mechanical defects. Is the convenience and cost-savings of doing away with safety inspections worth a potential increase in risks?
No longer do our state’s inspections stations make sure that our cars are safe to drive – which means some cars aren’t being maintained the way they should be. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
The Importance of the Third Brake Light
The third brake light has a technical name: Center High Mounted Stop Lamp (CHMSL). The inclusion of this equipment is no fluke, nor is it a mere aesthetic choice. CHMSL exist for an important reason that has nothing to do with style. Studies confirmed as early as 1974 that a third brake light contributes to reduction in the number of automobile accidents, according to the American Psychological Association, which states that using these devices “saves lives, property and money.”
Just how many lives and how much money? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s official report on the long-term effectiveness of the equipment, released in 1998, found that CHMSL reduce the number of accidents by 4.3 percent. While that may not sound like much, it translates to between 92,000 and 137,000 reported collisions and approximately 102,000 unreported accidents each year. The total cost savings is a whopping $655,000,000 annually.
So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
CHMSL are small, but effective. The NHTSA reported that these brake lights add just one pound of weight to a vehicle, and increase the cost by only $12. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
What makes that third brake light so effective? There are a few reasons. The most obvious is that the more lights that indicate a car is stopping, the more likely it is that a driver – who, unfortunately, may not be paying full attention to the road – will notice at least one of those lights in time to avoid an accident. This especially true at night, when the two tail lights are already lit up for the purposes of being seen. That third light can help a driver determine if the car in front of them is actively braking, or just has its headlights on.
If the third brake light’s effectiveness was strictly numerical, who’s to say that there shouldn’t be a fourth, fifth, or tenth brake light? How do designers choose where to put that extra lamp – and is an unusual layout of brake lights, like this, a potential hazard? Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
A key part of the effectiveness of CHMSL is that center-high position. If you’re driving an unaltered passenger vehicle, sure, you can see the tail lights of the car in front of you. You probably can’t see the tail lights of the car in front of them, though. On a congested road, an inattentive driver in front of you may not notice the brake lights of the vehicle ahead until it’s too late to stop. This can create a domino effect or lead to those headline-stealing multicar pileups.
In this picture, you can see how much easier it is to tell that the large vehicle in front on the right – the one with a working CHMSL – is stopped than to tell that the large vehicle in front on the left, with no working third brake light, is stopped. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Timing is essential when it comes to effective use of brakes. Personally, I’d rather not leave the amount of notice I have entirely in the hands of the driver in front of me, who may or may not be texting, fiddling with the radio, yelling at rambunctious children in the backseat, or driving while impaired. That third brake light gives us drivers the opportunity to see (above or through the windshields of the car in front of us) what’s going on ahead. The invention and mandatory inclusion of CHMSL is empowering. It gives us more control over driving situations and, in the scenario where every precious second counts, it can help us prevent accidents.
That’s exactly why lax policies and laws could have a dangerous effect on New Jersey roadways.
New Inspection Policy: Safety
In August 2010, the state of New Jersey made sweeping changes to how the Motor Vehicle Commission handles state-required vehicle inspections. The average passenger car – incidentally, the kind you encounter most frequently on the road – no longer needs to pass a mechanical (read: safety) inspection every two years. In fact, it doesn’t need to pass a safety inspection, period. The required two-year inspection now checks emissions only. Additionally, motorcycles no longer need to be inspected at all, and new cars aren’t due for inspection for up to five years.
The change was made primarily to save money, which every cash-strapped government, state and otherwise, is struggling to do in the current economy. In fact, we’re joining the majority. Already 28 other states and Washington, D.C. have switched to emissions-only inspections to save a few bucks. It seems that you can, in fact, put a price on safety. In our state, it’s $11,000,000.
New Jersey doesn’t charge drivers for inspection at state stations. Collectively, the policy changes, such as ending mechanical inspections and delaying inspections of new cars, saved the state more than $11,000,000, according to NJ.com. The question is whether it’s worth trading our safety for the savings. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
I’m all for funding only the programs that make a real difference to our state’s residents. There’s no point throwing money at a program that simply isn’t working, and that’s what some have claimed about the previous inspection policy. After all, only 6 percent of the 1,900,000 vehicles that the state inspected each year failed for “serious mechanical defects related to brakes, steering, suspension or tires,” the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission reported when it announced the policy change in 2010.
Let’s do the math. Six percent of 1,900,000 translates to 114,000 vehicles with serious safety-related problems. That’s right, the number of unsafe vehicles that mechanical inspections took off the streets, once upon a time, is precisely in the mid-range of the numbers of reported car crashes that having a third brake light can prevent. Yet one number is significant enough to make a mandatory across-the-board overhaul in the ways cars are designed, while the other is apparently so unimportant that it doesn’t argue for keeping a long-established safety inspection program.
And remember, that 114,000 figure doesn’t include the vehicles that owners would, in days past, take in for repairs because they knew they wouldn’t pass inspection with their bad brakes, balding tires, or glaring check engine lights. Photo Credit: Wikiuser100000, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).
The Lost Art of Replacing Brake Lights
As of now, drivers aren’t in violation of the law as long as two of their brake lights are working, and they can’t be cited. But this law undermines the effectiveness of CHMSL. Having a nonfunctioning third brake doesn’t help drivers avoid accidents – if anything, an inoperative CHMSL can contribute to accidents by falsely indicating that a driver isn’t braking, even if he or she is. We’ve become used to seeing these third brake lights, and seeing an unlit brake light can mislead us, with dangerous consequences.
Back when mechanical inspections were part of the inspection process, a blown bulb could cause a car to fail. The owner would have to replace the bulb or risk the consequences of driving with an expired inspection sticker – which could be as serious as a $100 to $200 fine or even 30 days of jail time. Now, though, there’s no consequence for driving with a blown-out bulb, other than the increased risk of accidents that many drivers, unfortunately, won’t think about until it’s too late.
You might view the push to create stricter laws as a direct response to the change in inspection policies and its consequences. “Since safety inspections in New Jersey were eliminated three years ago… many motorists are no longer making safety-related repairs,” reported WHYY Newsworks. If the new bill currently under consideration becomes a law, police will be able to issue a $47 fine to drivers of vehicles with only two functioning brake lights.
Proponents of the inspection policy change argued that “inspections are not necessary since many of the things that were being tested are already part of a car’s regular maintenance schedule,” according to Yahoo! Voices. The problem is that the people following the regular maintenance schedule and having their car regularly inspected by mechanics and repaired as needed aren’t the ones I’m particularly worried about. These owners were probably unaffected by mechanical inspections to begin with.
More dangerous are the automobile owners who, in the past, would neglect their cars until their two-year mechanical inspection date rolled around. Now that safety is no longer an inspection priority, do we believe that these same car owners will suddenly decide to become more responsible in maintaining their vehicles?
I don’t. Yes, it’s absolutely a driver’s responsibility to maintain his or her vehicle. However, the ones who don’t aren’t just putting themselves at risk. They endanger every person on the road with them, including our families. Blown brake lights are just the tip of the iceberg – what really worries me are the invisible problems, the ones that law enforcement can’t readily see from their patrol cars and that the average motorist doesn’t know or think to check, like the condition of brakes or tires. An out-of-order brake light might not serve the purpose of preventing accidents, but malfunctioning brakes can literally cause collisions.
To be honest, I don’t know if tightening laws on brake light requirements is the answer. The fine, though at the low end of the spectrum, could certainly be a rude wakeup call for any motorist who doesn’t know that his or her brake light is out. A better scenario would be for officers to first give drivers a warning and a fair amount of time to fix the problem. Yet an even better scenario would be for drivers to all take responsibility for maintaining their vehicle – but without the threat of a failed inspection, there’s simply no incentive to encourage the less-safety-minded to keep on top of problems and keep their cars from posing a hazard to all of us.
Will the threat of a $47 fine encourage drivers to replace their bulbs? And is such a fine fair, considering that you can’t see your own brake lights when you’re driving to know that your light is out?
As a driver and taxpayer, sure, I see the benefits of cost savings and convenience. With fewer features to check, inspections take less time and lines move more quickly. The value of saving $11,000,000 speaks for itself. As someone who spends every day working with accident victims, though, I have to admit that there’s something disturbing about the notion that we don’t need mechanical inspections. I care about the environment as much as the next person, but doesn’t the fact that we prioritize emissions checks over safety checks say something about our complete denial of how dangerous our state’s roads can be?
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