Driving home from a party late at night on July 29, 2005, 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose of Charles County crashed into a tree and died when her airbag failed to inflate because of a flaw in her Chevy Cobalt's ignition switch. She is thought to be the second person to die because of the ignition switch failures that have plagued millions of GM cars.
Drinking and speeding may have been contributing factors in the accident. But a simple ignition switch repair could have enabled her airbag to inflate and may have saved Amber's life. General Motors had known about the design flaw as early as 2001 but hadn't told drivers or dealers. In December 2005, GM issued a service bulletin advising dealers of the problem, yet the giant automaker didn't start recalling the cars affected until January 2014. At least 42 people have died and 58 have been seriously injured as a result of the ignition switch flaw.
More than 16 million GM cars have now been recalled over this problem, part of a record 60 million-plus cars recalled last year. That number includes more than 8 million cars containing certain airbags made by Japanese company Takata, which can send shrapnel into the faces of drivers and passengers in a crash; those airbags have caused at least four deaths. Just as in GM's ignition switch fiasco, the airbag recalls came after automakers had worked for years to hide the defects from consumers and federal regulators and delay needed recalls — even as drivers died in crashes that could and should have been prevented.
Car dealers and car buyers aren't always thought of as allies. But dealers and their service technicians often see such safety defects long before they are well known to the public or to federal safety regulators. If dealers were truly free to let consumers know about the safety and repair problems they see, they could serve as a critical early warning system for consumers and regulators, letting car buyers and safety officials know about dangerous defects and pushing their customers to fix those problems — before they cause dozens of deaths on the road.
Why doesn't this happen today? One key reason is that, incredibly enough, giant carmakers routinely order their franchised dealers not to furnish critical safety information or information about technical service and repair bulletins to their customers.
•General Motors' Policy and Procedure Manuals advise dealers: "GM prohibits the Service Agent calling, mailing, distributing materials, advertising, or otherwise communicating to customers for the correction of warranty or special coverage condition(s) where no customer notification has been made by GM."
•Toyota's Warranty Policy and Procedures Manual tells dealers: "Dealer solicitation of customers in connection with warranty service, Technical Service Bulletins (TSB), Customer Support Programs and the like, is prohibited. Specifically, dealers may not solicit customers or advertise in any form of media. ... If it is determined that a dealer has violated this policy, reimbursement for work performed may be subject to chargeback."
When a dealer is "charged back" for service conducted, the car manufacturer refuses to pay for thousands of dollars worth or repair work the dealer has already done — even if the work was needed to correct safety flaws and owed to the car buyer under his or her warranty. With dealer profit margin squeezed very small in a highly competitive car market, few dealers can afford to risk that kind of loss. Dealers also fear losing incentive offers and other benefits manufacturers routinely manipulate to make sure dealers do what the big automakers want.
So most dealers stay silent. But failing to disclose the information turns dealers into silent accomplices in manufacturers' efforts to conceal defects that often prove deadly on the road.
To free dealers to stand up for their customers and to make sure car buyers have the safety information they need, Maryland needs to pass legislation that protects the right of dealers to disclose critical safety recall, service bulletin and other key product and price information on their websites, by email, in the showroom and in every other medium. The state must also protect dealers by prohibiting the manufacturers from retaliating against dealers for passing along such information.
Most dealers want to do the right thing for their customers. Maryland needs to make sure they can act to protect their lives.