A new government study suggests the unthinkable: For 14 years, General Motors Corp., the nation's largest automaker, manufactured and sold trucks knowing their fuel tanks could rupture in side-impact crashes. Federal officials estimate as many as 150 people have died needlessly in fiery wrecks because the fuel tanks weren't adequately protected.
If the study's conclusions prove true, it would represent one of the the most egregious cases of corporate disregard for public safety in recent American history.
Chevrolet and GMC pickups built between 1973 and 1987 have two 20-gallon fuel tanks, one on each side, hung on the outside of the frame, covered only by sheet metal. According to the government report, General Motors internal documents indicate the company knew as early as the 1960s the so-called side-saddle fuel tanks posed a hazard but used the design anyway and continued it until the 1988 model year, when the trucks were reworked to accommodate one 34-gallon tank inside a widened steel frame.
General Motors faces about 50 lawsuits over the trucks' safety. Their vulnerability was the subject of an NBC News investigation last year, although the substance of the report was devalued when the network acknowledged it planted sparking devices on the demonstration truck to make certain leaking fuel ignited.
GM rejected a federal request last spring to recall the trucks voluntarily, and following release of the new report, a General Motors spokesman said the company continues to stand behind the safety of the design. GM contends the truck is no more dangerous than competitors' vehicles from the same years, although the federal data indicate deaths in fires following side-impact collisions occurred in GM trucks at a rate 2.5 to 2.8 times higher than the rates for Ford and Dodge pickups.
The cost of refitting the 4.5-million to 6.3-million GM trucks still on the roads has been estimated at $1-billion. If the fleet is allowed to run its useful service life without refitting, the government report projected another 32 people would die because of fires from ruptured fuel tanks.
A public hearing on the new report is scheduled for December, after which Transportation Department officials will decide whether to require GM to recall the vehicles, a move that would set off a protracted court battle, or to end the inquiry. In announcing the study findings, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena didn't sound like a man thinking about backing down. But even if that's the ultimate decision, private lawsuits will continue. A mandatory recall would cost a fortune, as would fighting one in court for years.
If any good comes from this, it might be the lesson for consumer product manufacturers everywhere, the one about the hazards of allowing corporate greed to overwhelm human decency.