Rusted brake lines in GM pickups demonstrate the twilight zone of auto safety
This week's hearings into the botched recall of 2.6 million cars by General Motors produced more heat for the automaker and regulators than light, with GM chief executive Mary Barra excorciated by lawmakers for the automaker's mistakes. All of the questions built from the same unstated premise: cars and their parts should always be safe, and automakers like GM should fix them when they’re not.
Yet in many cases, how the industry and government regulators define a safety defect isn’t a yes-or-no question — and it’s another GM issue involving millions of vehicles that demonstrates the twilight zone in between.
For more a decade, thousands of owners of GM full-size pickups and SUVs — mainly the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra — have complained to federal regulators and GM about rusted brake lines. The trucks use small steel pipes to route brake fluid between the wheels and control pumps, and those lines can rust to failure, especially in northern states that salt their roads frequently in winter.
It’s a well-known problem among GM truck owners and mechanics, several of whom have documented their troubles in online videos. While most of the complaints involve models made between 1999 and 2006, some newer vehicles have seen complaints as well.
And scores of owners have reported a sudden brake failure while driving due to their rusted brake lines giving way on the road. One owner told federal officials about just such a failure in a 2005 Silverado this February:
While approaching a red light at 28 mph and pressing the brake, the pedal went completely to the floor and the vehicle did not slow down. I pumped the pedal repeatedly and only slight braking action could be achieved. I went through the intersection just narrowly missing two crossing cars and turned onto a nearby side street. After finally getting the vehicle to stop, I got out and saw a puddle of brake fluid forming a few feet behind the driver side front wheel.
In March 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into the problem, counting 763 complaints including 26 crashes and three injuries. NHTSA also found that the failure rate of brake lines on GM’s trucks in winter states was far higher than in warm-weather states — 43 per 100,000 sold in the north vs. 3 per 100,000 elsewhere, and that in a quarter of cases the system failed on the road without warning. In January 2011, NHTSA upgraded the probe to an “engineering analysis” on at least 1.7 million vehicles, often the final step before an automaker issues a recall or the agency orders one.