For GM, unsafe car design now means having to say you’re sorry


McClatchy Washington Bureau

It’s been nearly 50 years since a General Motors executive made a public apology before Congress, acknowledging that the giant car maker had hired private detectives to harass a young, crusading lawyer for auto safety by the name of Ralph Nader.

The March 1966 hearing was as riveting in its time as GM chief Mary Barra’s apology for faulty ignition switches was Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Barra, who just took over the helm of the GM in January, went before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on Oversight and Investigations to acknowledge GM’s failure to recall the switches, which have been linked to 13 deaths.

“Today’s GM will do the right thing,” she said. “That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall _ especially to the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.”

To Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Nader-founded Center for Auto Safety, Barra’s contrition was a defining moment.

“This is the first public apology by a top GM executive since 1966,” he said. “That’s the significance.”

Ditlow said that while the car industry has been responsible for other safety flaws since then, “GM does not apologize easily.”

In 1966, GM president James Roche apologized at a televised Senate subcommittee hearing for the “kind of harassment to which Mr. Nader has apparently been subjected.”

The year before, Nader had published his groundbreaking investigation, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a book that exposed the American auto industry as prioritizing design and comfort over safety. Chief among his examples were design flaws in GM’s popular Corvair.

GM’s investigation of Nader included reportedly tapping his phones and hiring prostitutes to lure him into a compromising position. The car maker wanted to discredit him, or as a young Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., who served on the Senate committee, said at the time, “possibly blackmail” him.

Nader sued GM and settled for $425,000, a record at the time. He used the money to fund his consumer activist organizations, staffed by what came to be known as “Nader’s Raiders.”

Read more Politics Wires stories from the Miami Herald

President Obama holds up four-month-old Ryan Kelley, of Richmond, R.I., while greeting a gathering shortly after arriving at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. The president traveled to Rhode Island to attend a Democratic fundraiser in Newport on Friday.

    Obama on Labor Day: Don't take rights for granted

    President Barack Obama is asking Americans this Labor Day to think about the rights and benefits that people often take for granted.

  • 5 things to watch in final 2 months of election

    The final two months of campaigning in Michigan will determine if Republicans continue their four-year control of state government and who will succeed U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a retiring Democrat who has held his seat for nearly 36 years.

FILE - In this April 3, 2014 file photo, Democratic candidate for governor Mark Schauer speaks during a news conference in Grand Rapids, Mich. Political TV ads are set to escalate in the final two months of the race between Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Schauer, as the campaigns and their deep-pocketed outside allies sharply focus their message to voters.

    Airwaves heat up in race for Michigan governor

    Political TV ads are set to escalate in the final two months of the race between Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Democrat Mark Schauer, as the campaigns and their deep-pocketed outside allies sharply focus their message to voters.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category