General Motors Co., which has set a record for recalls this year as it tries to clear up lingering safety issues, is making an exception for rusting brake lines in almost 1.8 million pickups and sport-utility vehicles.
Much like it did initially with flawed ignition switches in small cars linked to at least 13 deaths, GM says the corroded lines aren’t a safety hazard that requires a recall. Even with at least 26 crashes, three injuries and a four-year-old probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM is characterizing potential brake failure as normal wear-and-tear.
The largest U.S. automaker says it’s up to owners to make sure rust won’t lead to a catastrophic failure. The company’s position on brake lines stands in contrast to its unprecedented attempt to speed up recalls -- now about 26 million in the U.S. this year -- to show the “new GM” has turned a corner and is more focused on customer safety than the bottom line.
“They seem to be doing a lot of recalls, but on closer investigation, you find they’re more hesitant to do the recalls that cost more money,” said Mark Modica, an associate fellow with the National Legal and Policy Center, who was a onetime GM bondholder and a former manager at a Saturn dealership in Pennsylvania. “GM’s response has been quite callous.”
GM’s pickups from the early 2000s include steel brake lines that owners claim are so rust-prone they fail without notice, spilling fluid. The lost fluid means a sudden, sometimes catastrophic loss of braking power, the owners say.
The pickups in question are long out of factory warranty, and owner’s manuals urge customers to have their brake lines inspected, said Alan Adler, a spokesman for Detroit-based GM. More than 20 states require brake-line inspections at one- or two-year intervals or when stopped for a violation, he said.
GM developed a repair kit that should cost about $500 to install, Adler said. Since no recall has been declared, dealers and third-party mechanics set their own prices to cover the parts and labor, he said.
“Customers should negotiate the labor time and cost with the shop, and if unsatisfied with the price quoted, keep shopping,” Adler said.
For some vehicle owners, it’s less about the cost of the parts and more about taking responsibility for a safety hazard.
“If you’re doing 30, 40 or 50 miles per hour when it happens, you lose 50 percent of your braking,” said Joe Palumbo, a Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, owner of a 2004 Chevrolet Avalanche. “If a light changes, you go right through an intersection. If you’re towing and you’ve got a load of four, five or six thousand pounds behind you, you’re in deep doo-doo.”
Palumbo says he was driving his Avalanche in 2009 with 38,916 miles on the odometer when a front brake line burst, pouring fluid on the street. Two years later, in September 2011, a back line burst at 46,442 miles, he said.
The brake lines were rusted through and had to be replaced, Palumbo said. The second time, he complained and his dealer issued him a $600 check.
NHTSA has been investigating the reports since January 2011. It opened a probe into 10 Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC models spanning the 1999 to 2003 model years, including the Escalade, Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe and Yukon.
In vehicles in the so-called Salt Belt, including the East Coast and most of the Midwest, complaint rates about failing brake lines were 43 per 100,000 vehicles sold, compared with 3 per 100,000 in other states, NHTSA said.
“In 26 of these incidents, the increase in stopping distance that resulted was alleged as a factor in a crash, and in 10 others, the vehicle was intentionally steered off the road or into another lane of travel in order to avoid a crash,” NHTSA said.
The investigation is still active, an agency spokesman said. The agency doesn’t comment on pending investigations, he said.
The agency hasn’t posted anything to its public docket on the investigation since early 2013. It shows that investigators asked for comparable warranty and engineering data from Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Toyota Motor Corp.
GM told regulators that vehicles with one failed brake line are still capable of stopping under the power of the other line. Further, it said the vehicles were designed to meet federal safety standards ensuring redundancy in case there’s a brake-line leak.
GM has worked to clear the decks of lingering safety questions in the wake of congressional hearings, the largest-ever civil penalty imposed on an automaker and a criminal investigation related to its years-long delay in recalling 2.59 million small cars this year for flawed ignition switches.
Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has since stepped up efforts to shed the automaker’s reputation for foot-dragging on defective parts, ramping up its recalls to a record for U.S. safety fixes by an automaker in a calendar year. In the first half of 2014, GM recalled 25.7 million cars in the U.S. and almost 29 million in North America.
GM puts the onus on inspecting brake lines on vehicle owners and their mechanics and denies there’s a defect. Owners need to have brake lines inspected regularly, in the same way tires or fluids must be checked.
Another automaker experiencing similar brake-line rust has reacted much differently. Subaru, a unit of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., recalled 660,000 Outback, Legacy, Impreza and Forrester vehicles in 20 cold-weather states and Washington, D.C., on July 3 to check corrosion. A similar recall started in April 2013 for brake-line corrosion covers about 274,000 Outback and Legacy vehicles.
An analysis of NHTSA’s public complaints database by the Falls Church, Virginia-based National Legal and Policy Center, a research group focused on government and corporate corruption, shows 1,372 brake-line complaints in Chevrolet models from 1999 through 2008, compared with 153 in Ford-brand models, 58 for Toyota and 15 for Honda.
One GM owner told the agency his lines burst as he was coming home from a trip. His truck had just been tuned up. The vehicle couldn’t stop and ended up in a 200-foot ravine.
“GM should have to pay for these repairs at the very least,” the driver told NHTSA. “I myself still have to figure out how to deal with my newly fused spine due to this accident.”
The vehicle brake line is not one of the parts a person should expect to have to replace in the normal lifetime of a vehicle, said Bill Visnic, senior editor at vehicle-purchase website Edmunds.com.
“In a typical duty cycle, it should effectively last the life of the vehicle,” he said. “It’s down there with the chassis and it should be designed for that environment to resist corrosion.”