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OPINION - A rolling hunk of trouble

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Has this ever happened to you? You're driving your car, and suddenly it stalls out while it's moving. On a modern car almost everything stops working. No power steering. No power brakes. The windshield wipers stop working. The airbags are disabled. You'd need to have the presence of mild to put the vehicle, which you are now struggling to control, into neutral and restart it while moving.

This happened to me once. Thankfully, I was in a parking lot and was travelling very slowly. I wrestled with the steering wheel and had to put all my weight on the brake to get my minivan to stop. (The problem was low idle in cold weather; I was long overdue for a tune-up.) I remember thinking that if I was going faster, or if I was in traffic, there almost certainly would have been a crash.

This is the problem thats at the heart of the General Motors recalls that are being investigated by Congress. If you have a heavy key-ring, the weight of those extra keys can shake the ignition switch into the off position while youre driving. GM was aware of the problem. It took more than a year-and-a-half to announce a recall.

I'm sympathetic to General Motors about the mechanical problem, while I also consider the foot-dragging to be an outrage.

A motor vehicle is a complex system of thousands of parts all of which we expect to work all the time. De-bugging a new car model is very difficult. During this new vehicle trials it's unreasonable to think that the car would be driven with a heavy key ring the kind that is the trigger to the problem. I'd image that a car being driven at a test track or proving ground has only a single key in the ignition; not the collection of keys some of us carry in our pockets. So the chances of this problem materializing during tests is almost zero. To expect that level of troubleshooting from a car manufacturer is unreasonable.

GM was probably reluctant to announce a recall because of cost; a new ignition for every impacted car is expensive. Even an inexpensive part - a small sliver of a place-holder that sets the key more firmly into the ignition - requires time to manufacture and install and would cost millions of dollars. GM would have had to fight the government on a simple, more logical option: sending out a safety bulletin to their customers warning them to remove extra keys from their key rings before driving. Those written alerts are said to be ineffective. Too many drivers dont read them.

But that's where my sympathy for GM stops. Once they were aware of the problem, their 100% focus needed to be on fixing it. It wasn't. Their corporate lawyers were still in cover-up mode, denying systemic problems in crash cases and trying to negotiate confidential settlements. And some of this was unfolding while GM was government-owned. Their lawyers even argued that they should be exempt from lawsuits for crashes that happened before the government bailout. And they trotted out their new female GM, Mary Barra, to play the I'm a mother, too" card.

The most disappointing part of the whole GM fiasco is that a company with the deepest pockets, up to and including our tax dollars, still can't do the right thing. The corporate culture of denial and obstruction won out.

Chris Conley

Image: Chevrolet cars are seen at a GM dealership in Miami, Florida in this file photo from August 12, 2010.REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA via wsau.com