Laura Christian holds a photo of her daughter, Amber Marie Rose, who died at 16 in a 2005 car accident that involved a faulty ignition switch that was not recalled for another nine years.
Laura Christian holds a photo of her daughter, Amber Marie Rose, who died at 16 in a 2005 car accident that involved a faulty ignition switch that was not recalled for another nine years. (Erin Cox, Baltimore Sun)

A prominent Maryland car dealer says manufacturers muzzle him and his colleagues, forbidding them from telling customers about potential safety problems until they develop into full-fledged recalls. Jack Fitzgerald asked a state Senate panel Tuesday to pass a bill granting free speech for dealers to warn customers.

A prominent Maryland car dealer says manufacturers muzzle him and his colleagues, forbidding them from telling customers about potential safety problems until they develop into full-fledged recalls.

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Jack Fitzgerald, president of Fitzgerald Automalls, said the rules mean customers unwittingly drive cars that could become hazards while mechanics who could fix the problems are mostly required to stay silent.

Fitzgerald asked a state Senate panel Tuesday to pass a bill granting free speech for dealers to warn customers about potential problems.

"We are forbidden to tell consumers about things that could help them," he said. "This is insane."

The legislation's sponsor, Sen. Susan C. Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat, said it would improve transparency and prevent manufacturers from retaliating against dealers who advertise potential defects.

The proposed law comes as the official death toll from faulty ignition switches on General Motors vehicles rose this week to 57. The giant automaker has come under criminal investigation for the 11-year delay from when it first detected problems with the ignitions until it issued a recall.

Laurie Christian's 16-year-old daughter died in a 2005 crash in which she said the faulty ignition disabled her daughter's power brakes, power steering and air bags. While speed and alcohol were contributing factors in the accident, Christian said, the emergency technicians told her Amber Marie Rose would have survived crashing into a tree had her air bags inflated.

She said the family purchased the Chevy Cobalt because of its safety ratings, and told lawmakers the current rules meant that mechanics were not allowed to warn her about potential problems in advance.

"She never had a problem with her car until it took her life," said Christian, who lives in Anne Arundel County. "Dealers are prohibited from doing the right thing."

She said she was stunned to learn that GM knew about the problem years before she reported it to them. But she said dealers who worked on the cars knew there were problems with the ignition slipping out of the "on" position.

Fitzgerald and consumer advocates said the proposed legislation would allow them to publicize technical bulletins from manufacturers that alert dealers to potential problems long before they become established enough to trigger a recall.

Critics of the bill questioned whether it was wise to inundate consumers with the numerous bulletins — which are issued when manufacturers are still collecting information on potential problems. They cautioned that multiple warnings could lead consumers to ignore recalls when they are issued.

Republican Del. Robert G. Cassilly of Harford County said he fears dealers would improperly use the bulletins to drum up maintenance business for themselves by convincing consumers to come in for repairs that may not be necessary.

The association that represents most Maryland car dealers does not support the legislation, arguing in part that it is too broadly written.

Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association, said most dealers do not feel censored by their franchise agreements with manufacturers.

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If you bring in a car for a problem with a cooling system and mechanics notice a transmission problem identified by the manufacturer but not yet subject to recall, most dealer mechanics will tell the consumer, he said.

"They're not going to not tell you about a problem," Kitzmiller said.

Kitzmiller said the organization would support the bill if it only dealt with freedom of speech, but objects to other provisions that redefine the rules between manufacturers and car dealers.

Representatives of Mazda and Volkswagen also testified against the bill, saying the federal government already publicizes potential defects as they are uncovered. They said consumers are better off with manufacturers being the sole source of safety warnings.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has not scheduled a vote on the bill.

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