DETROIT — In each of the past five summers, General Motors has dedicated a week to redoubling its commitment to safety and burying the culture that allowed a deadly ignition-switch defect to go unfixed for more than a decade.
The latest Global Safety Week included an unplanned reminder of the challenge GM faces and the consequences of inaction.
Just before CEO Mary Barra told employees in a companywide broadcast to make safety “a daily priority and every-minute priority,” regulators disclosed that GM is recalling nearly 3.5 million large pickups and SUVs for a brake problem that it has been dealing with internally since at least 2015. The defect is tied to 113 accidents, 13 injuries and hundreds of complaints, most of which have poured in since federal regulators at NHTSA opened an investigation last fall.
It’s one of the largest recalls by any automaker since the ignition-switch defect surfaced in 2014 and affects more U.S. vehicles than GM has recalled in each of the past two years.
“We dedicated ourselves to work together to solve this problem,” Barra said last week, referring to GM’s post-2014 emphasis on safety. “And until we get to a company where we have zero crashes and a workplace where we have zero injuries, we need to think about this as a marathon with no finish line.”
Unlike the ignition-switch defect, the brake problem — a loss of vacuum pump assist can make the pedal hard to press — isn’t linked to any deaths, in part because it often occurs at low speeds. GM told NHTSA it thinks only about 2 percent of the recalled vehicles have the problem, which can be fixed by reprogramming the brake control module, and said the cost is not expected to be material, despite the large number of vehicles.
But documents on NHTSA’s website and class-action lawsuits against GM show that it’s another case of the company taking numerous lesser actions, starting with a one-page service bulletin in February 2015, before ultimately approving a full recall. It sent four updates of the bulletin to dealers over three and a half years, offered a warranty extension in April and launched a customer-satisfaction campaign in August. GM recalled the same vehicles in Canada more than two months sooner.
The timing of the recall announcement and Global Safety Week was coincidental, GM spokesman Dan Flores said. He acknowledged that employees might wonder why a company so focused on safety had to recall millions of vehicles.
“Regardless of the timing of the recall, we’re committed to do the right thing for the customer,” he said. “We unfortunately had to learn the hard way following the ignition-switch recall.”