General Motors will pay a record fine for its gross failure to respond to a fatal flaw in the design of its cars. But continuing revelations of faulty engineering across many of the company's product lines — including a recall Tuesday of 2.4 million vehicles — make it all the more important that regulators and investigators continue digging until they are confident the company has been thoroughly examined. Despite millions of recalls and assurances, GM cannot be trusted to police itself.
GM agreed last week to pay $35 million in a civil settlement with the federal government over its failure to make timely reports about problems with the ignition switches in several of its small cars. The company also is facing a fine of $7,000 a day for failing to fully answer investigators' questions. Records show the company knew for a decade that a faulty ignition switch in several of its smaller lines of cars, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, could cause the cars to lose power and deactivate air bags. The company has linked at least 13 deaths and 32 crashes to the faulty switches and acknowledges there could be more. The problem came to light in February when GM began what would become a recall of 2.6 million cars with ignition problems. In the months that followed, the recalls kept coming. GM recalled another 1.5 million cars in March for a variety of safety reasons. Last week, the company recalled 2.7 million cars and trucks amid concerns about faulty brake lamp wiring. And on Tuesday, it recalled 2.4 million cars and trucks for safety concerns ranging from seat belt fatigue issues to gear shift problems.
New GM chief executive Mary Barra has apologized to consumers and ordered a safety review of the company's entire fleet. The company said it expects to take a charge of $400 million in the second quarter for recall-related repairs. Four senior executives have resigned or left GM amid investigations by the Justice Department, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Questions are still unanswered about how much executives knew about the potentially fatal ignition switch flaw, when they learned about it and why they waited more than a decade to tell government regulators and consumers.
After failing repeatedly to protect its consumers, GM is now combing through its product lines and alerting consumers and dealers about defects. It also is settling at least 300 claims from families of individuals who died or were hurt in GM crashes. The company could have hidden behind a federal law designed to shield it from litigation regarding crashes that happened before 2009, when the company filed for bankruptcy. GM's lawyers are vigorously fighting other cases regarding its faulty ignition switches that did not result in death or injury.
The path back to a restored reputation for GM will be a long one, especially in light of deception that stretched more than a decade and ended in death for at least 13 people. It should not have taken such a deadly debacle to force GM to adopt what should have been standard operating procedure: a commitment to transparency and quick action to fix product failures. Profit cannot be valued more than consumer safety and federal regulators should continue to dig.