WASHINGTON Federal safety officials accused General Motors of being slow to recall vehicles after finding defects, documents made public this week reveal. GM paid $1 million last year to settle the case.
In an unusually stern rebuke, an official of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said that GMs recent history with regard to the timing of defect determinations has, and continues to be, a matter of significant concern to the agency.
According to the documents, NHTSA warned the automaker last year it was subject to a fine of more than $15 million for such tardiness an alleged violation of federal law. NHTSA and GM settled on a payment of $1 million last July.
That payment resolved a NHTSA claim that GM knew windshield wipers were defective in nearly 600,000 SUVs in late 2002 but didnt plan a recall until early 2004.
NHTSA disclosed the $1 million penalty at the end of 2004, in an announcement of all civil fines the agency collected in the calendar year. GM did not acknowledge any violation of law in the settlement agreement.
Undisclosed documents included NHTSAs rebuke of GM for what the agency called a pattern of slow response to safety defects. The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group, obtained the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act and made them available Wednesday.
NHTSA last week declined a reporters request for the documents.
Last March NHTSA chief counsel Jacqueline Glassman wrote GM that the automakers actions in the wiper case exposed it to a potential fine that far exceeds the existing $15,000,000 statutory maximum. She added: Nor is this an isolated incident.
Glassman offered to close the case for a $3 million payment. That would have been the highest penalty ever in a safety defect case.
In a response, GM general counsel Thomas Gottschalk disputed the allegations. He said GM thoroughly investigated complaints about the wipers and took timely action once it found a defect.
Gottschalk noted the wipers could malfunction in several ways, only one of which complete failure might pose a safety hazard, he said.
At that, Gottschalk added, in an estimated 25 billion miles of use by owners of the affected SUVs, there was only one report of a crash blamed on wiper failure.
He wrote: The overall record is replete with instances where GM has stepped up immediately to a product issue which it felt had obvious negative safety ramifications and undertaken a prompt voluntary recall without any encouragement from NHTSA.
Gottschalk proposed that GM and NHTSA discuss ways to help GM avoid what the agency considered to be delays in decision-making about recalls.
A NHTSA spokeswoman maintained this week that GMs $1 million payment sent a strong signal to the industry.
Vehicles in the case are getting new wiper assemblies. They include some 2002-03 Chevrolet TrailBlazers and TrailBlazer EXTs, GMC Envoys and Envoy XLs, Oldsmobile Bravadas and Isuzu Ascenders.