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“A Culture of Timidity”: Ralph Nader on How Regulators Ignored a GM Safety Defect Tied to 13 Deaths

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After hundreds of complaints and 13 deaths, the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into how the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, may have covered up deadly safety defects in its compact cars. Six GM models made from 2003 to 2007 suddenly turned off while being driven — leaving drivers with no engine power, no power steering, no breaks and no air bags. For 11 years, GM reportedly treated the defect as a matter of customer satisfaction, not safety. Federal regulators also failed to take action, declining to investigate despite a flood of complaints. GM finally announced a massive recall of some 1.6 million vehicles last month. We speak with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who is no stranger to GM. After writing “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” he won a major settlement against the auto giant for spying on him and trying to discredit him. Nader faults what he calls “a culture of timidity” in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “bred by the lack of backing by the Bush White House and, to some similar extent, by the Obama White House.” He adds: “That of course leads to a reluctance to follow up on the evidence, to stand tall for the American motorist. That is not why we established the auto safety agency in 1966, so maybe this will help turn it around. Often it takes a tragedy like this to turn it around.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Justice Department has reportedly launched a criminal investigation into how General Motors, the nation’s largest automaker, may have covered up safety defects in its compact cars that were linked to at least 13 deaths. The problem? Six models of cars GM made from 2003 to 2007, including Chevy Cobalts, Saturn Ions, Pontiac Solstices and the Saturn Sky, suddenly turned off while being driven. That means no engine power, no power steering, no breaks and no air bags.

A report by the industry trade magazine Automotive News concluded that for 11 years GM treated it as a matter of customer satisfaction and not safety. Federal regulators may have also failed to take action. Despite more than a decade of complaints at the rate of about two a month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to investigate the problem, saying there was not enough evidence. Then, in February, GM announced a massive recall of some 1.6 million vehicles based on the ignition switch defect.

This is how the advocacy group, Consumer Reports, described the problem.

CONSUMER REPORTS VIDEO: General Motors is advising customers to remove all keychains from their ignition key and only use the ignition key by itself when operating the vehicle. So you have three stages: from lock to accessory and to on. And what could happen is that a very heavy keychain, combined with the weak detents in the car, could let the key turn back to accessory or even lock. And in that situation, the airbags would fail to deploy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Justice Department’s probe into how General Motors may have covered up its safety problems comes as Republican and Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to GM’s chief executive and the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demanding all records of consumer complaints and reports of deaths or injuries.

AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, we’ll be joined by Ralph Nader, who’s no stranger to GM. In 1965, he wrote the book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. Then he won a major settlement against GM for spying on him and trying to discredit him, and used the lawsuit’s proceeds to start the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. This is Ralph Nader pointing out the safety flaws of General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair.

RALPH NADER: What aggravates the problem is that the rear wheels of the Corvair begin to tuck under. And as they tuck under—the angle of tuck under is called “camber.” And as they tuck under, it can go from three or four degrees camber to 11 degrees camber almost in an instant. And when that happens, nobody can control the Corvair. Interestingly—

CBC INTERVIEWER: Well, then, surely they did the right thing. They found out there was something was wrong with the car, and they fixed it.

RALPH NADER: Yes. The question is: Why did it take them four years to find out? This is my point. Either it’s sheer callousness or indifference, or they don’t bother to find out how their cars behave.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ralph Nader back in the mid-’60s. His exposé led to the first of a number of federal laws bearing his imprint, including the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Well, he joins us now from Washington, D.C. The longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic, former presidential candidate has a new book coming out in April called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

Ralph Nader, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about this latest news about what looks like now a criminal investigation into General Motors.

RALPH NADER: Well, a criminal investigation is certainly warranted. General Motors knew about the defect in 2004. They kept getting feedback of fatalities, crashes, airbags not going off, engines being shut off, in the subsequent years. They covered it up. They didn’t report it to the Department of Transportation’s auto safety agency. And they didn’t even notify the CEO of GM, Mary Barra, until January 31st of this year. That’s a pattern that fits the predicates for a criminal prosecution, which I understand the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York is now pursuing.

But what this whole tragic episode reveals, Amy, is not just layers of bureaucracy in General Motors that prevent serious problems from going to the decision makers arguing for a recall, but it also shows the ineptitude of the National [Highway] Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, in the Department of Transportation, that knew about this years ago, didn’t think it qualified for a recall, and it has to reveal a lot of internal documents, both in terms of its own operations and its relations with General Motors, that has been demanded specifically by Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety. So I hope this will swell up into a good recall, a good correction, which will take weeks for 1.6 million vehicles to be straightened out, and the congressional hearings will hopefully lead to stronger and tougher auto safety laws and penalties.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ralph Nader, can you explain why it is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took so long to take action? You’ve suggested that they are massively underfunded. Was that the problem?

RALPH NADER: Well, that’s one of them. I think the auto safety section of the budget is about $45 million a year, which compares with the $650 million a year that taxpayers pay for guarding the embassy in Baghdad and its personnel. You see the priorities here. Safety on the highways should be a real priority. But it’s also a culture of timidity in the auto safety agency, or NHTSA, as it’s called, a culture of timidity bred by the lack of backing by the Bush White House and, to some similar extent, by the Obama White House. And that, of course, leads to a reluctance to follow up on the evidence, to stand tall for the American motorist, and that is not why we established the auto safety agency in 1966. So, maybe this will help turn it around. Often it takes a tragedy like this to turn it around.

RALPH NADER: General Motors filed a timeline with federal investigators that shows when it first became aware of the problems with the ignition switches turning off in some cars it made between 2003 and ’07 and when it finally issued the recall of six of those models last month—about, as you were saying, 1.6 million cars. This is CBS News reporter Jeff Glor recapping early reports of problems.

JEFF GLOR: 2004, GM became aware of at least one incident involving a Chevy Cobalt. An inquiry was opened, but after consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness of the solutions, it is closed with no action. 2005, new field reports of engines losing power. A service bulletin was issued to dealers in case customers complained, saying, “There is potential for the driver to inadvertently turn off the ignition … the concern is more likely to occur if the driver is short and has a large and/or heavy key chain.” But no recall was issued. 2007, a GM engineer began an investigation. New incidents of airbags not deploying are discovered. 2010, GM discontinued production of the Cobalt.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s from CBS. Now I want to read from a New York Times story about consumer complaints of the potentially dangerous shutdowns in six GM models. They were submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the rate of about two per month since 2003. The Times reports, quote, “To the mounting complaints, the safety agency sometimes responded with polite but formulaic letters similar to one it sent in December 2010 to Barney Frank, then a congressman from Massachusetts, who had written on behalf of a distraught constituent whose 2006 Cobalt kept stalling. In the letter to Mr. Frank, the agency said it had reviewed its database of complaints to determine if a 'safety defect trend' existed. [Quote] 'At this time, there is insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation,' the letter concluded.” Ralph Nader, talk about this whole sequence.

RALPH NADER: Well, the sequence reflects the unwillingness of the secretary of transportation and the chief of the auto safety agency to really pay attention to auto defects, and not just the GM problem. This would not likely have happened under Joan Claybrook, who ran the auto safety agency under President Carter, because she met every week with the defect recall manager, every week in her office going through every single bit of evidence that might lead to trends, that might lead to rapid action for recalls. That’s one.

The second is that the GM bankruptcy, when the taxpayer bailed out GM in 2009, they created a new GM and immunized GM from all the product liability lawsuits that had been filed on behalf of deceased or next of kin regarding defects in GM cars. They just wiped them off. And what I’m pressing for now in this terrible tragedy that’s unfolding is that General Motors voluntarily waive that immunity and allow all those product liability cases, that were already in the courts or already filed or about to be filed, to be brought to judicial evaluation. In other words, reinstate the cases. And it’s not just the 1.6 billion category—million category of Chevy Cobalt; it’s all the other GM cars that had defects that produced deaths and injuries and whose cases were immunized by the bankruptcy judge in New York City—unprecedented and very cruel to those people. So we’re going to go for that, as well as press for criminal charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Should GM executives be charged with murder?

RALPH NADER: It all depends on the evidence of how high up the knowledge of the deadly defect percolated and the extent to which they covered it up. That’s why the internal investigation of GM by CEO Mary Barra and the congressional investigation and the Department of Transportation and the U.S. attorney in New York, I think they’ll get to the bottom of it, as well as the media on top of it. This is not just a dozen or 13 fatalities. There’s more to be discovered. But it reflects the failure of the regulatory process, because of the power of members of Congress, like retiring John Dingell from Michigan, who made a career out of stamping down on the auto safety agency in the Department of Transportation, not just in terms of opposing strong safety enforcement and penalties, but also fuel efficiency advances and emission controls. So this can open up a whole new opportunity to protect the American people and to support those engineers inside General Motors who have tried to do the right thing but weren’t backed up.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then move from cars to the issue of climate change and also, talking about issues of energy, this third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. Our guest is longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

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