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Auto Companies Resist Recalls

Although the car manufacturer General Motors likes to portray itself as a leader in automotive safety, the reality may be quite different. According to a recent story in the New York Times, GM recalled almost 30 million cars in North America last year.

Because of the spotlight shining on the safety of its vehicles, GM overhauled its safety practices. But was this enough? GM's response to a recent steering issue suggests that the company's commitment to safety may be only skin deep.

GM Refuses to Issue Recall for Steering Problem

It sounds serious enough. Owners of certain popular cars such as the Buick Verano have reported that the steering wheel can lock up if the car has been traveling in a more or less straight line for a while.

The company sent dealers instructions on how to repair the problem last summer, but were told to only make the repairs if an owner complained about the defect. It also notified owners of the problem in November 2014.

The company says that the problem occurs very seldom and that drivers can remedy the problem by applying pressure to the wheel. As a result, they did not issue a recall. And the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration appeared to agree, saying that the problem causes a slight change in the feel of the steering that has "little to no effect on the driver's ability to safely steer the vehicle."

In addition to appearing on the Verano, the steering problem was found on the Chevrolet Cruze and the Chevrolet Malibu.

Brake Problem Did Not Result in Recall

The company's response to the problem is similar to its reaction to problems with brakes in older pickup trucks and SUVs from the period 1999 to 2003. Owners complained that brakes failed because the lines rusted out, but the company has not issued a recall. The NHTSA seemed to place the blame squarely on the owners, saying that rust should be expected on older vehicles where salt was routinely used on roads in the winter. It also urged owners to wash their cars frequently. It reviewed 3,645 complaints from owners that alleged that brake failures of this type caused 107 crashes and 40 injuries.

Even though more vehicles than ever were recalled in 2014, GM and other auto manufacturers prefer issuing service bulletins like the recent one that instructed dealers to fix vehicles when owners complained about changes in steering. By issuing a service bulletin, the company is saying that it does not view the problem as a serious safety issue.

However, some product recalls were preceded by service bulletins, sometimes for months or years before a recall was issued. This suggests that car manufacturers may be testing the waters to determine the severity of a problem by issuing a service bulletin that only repairs vehicles when drivers report problems. The more serious action, the recall, requires companies to preemptively repair vehicles in which the problem has not yet appeared. The service bulletin, of course, is a much less expensive method of dealing with vehicle defects.

Whether GM will ultimately be required to issue a recall of the Verano, the Cruze and the Malibu remains to be seen. It is clear from the company's actions, however, that it would definitely prefer to not have to do this.