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Government Takes Aim at GM Pickups : Autos: The 1973-87 C-K trucks are found to pose an 'unreasonable risk.' Company vows a fight in court.

October 18, 1994|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — General Motors Corp. C-K series pickup trucks, which have been involved in several fatal fires following side-impact crashes, pose an "unreasonable risk," Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said Monday.

He scheduled a Dec. 6 hearing to determine whether the government should require GM to recall the trucks, made between 1973 and 1987, which are sold under the GMC and Chevrolet nameplates.

The decision "is totally unjustified," Bruce G. MacDonald, GM vice president for communications, said in Detroit. "The suggestion that GM put sales ahead of safety is outrageous and wrong."

The company rejected an April 9, 1993, government request that it recall the trucks voluntarily.

About 150 people have died as a result of side-impact fires in the trucks in crashes that were otherwise survivable, and many others suffered serious burns, Pena said.

The trucks have been widely criticized because their fuel tanks are mounted outside the body frame, allowing for larger tanks and therefore longer driving range, but making the tanks vulnerable to damage.

"This design was selected for marketing reasons," Pena said, adding that it was not changed for 15 years despite "evidence that GM was aware, possibly as early as the mid-1970s but certainly by the early 1980s, that this design made these trucks more vulnerable and that fatalities from side-impact fires were occurring."

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found 2.8 fire-related deaths per 1 million registered vehicle years in the GM pickups, compared to one death per million in Ford trucks, which enclose the fuel tank within the frame.

About 9 million of the GM trucks were built and about half are believed to still be on the road, the Transportation Department said.

"The record clearly shows that there is an increased risk associated with these GM pickups, and (it) leads me to conclude at this point that the risk is unreasonable," Pena told a news conference.

GM's MacDonald said the trucks "have fully met the applicable safety standards for fuel system integrity in collisions. . . . There is simply no legal or scientific basis on which to seek a recall of these trucks under the Vehicle Safety Act. If necessary, we will defend their safety in court."

In his statement, Pena noted that the law requires vehicles to both meet safety standards and to be safe in "real world conditions."

The government began investigating the safety of the pickups in 1992 in response to petitions by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen. It has collected more than 100,000 pages of material on the issue.

The public hearing is required before a company can be ordered to conduct a recall.

However, even if the government acted immediately, the eight-year statute of limitations would bar it from requiring a recall of trucks made before 1986, limiting the action to the last two model years involved. GM changed the design in 1988.

In June, a Georgia court overturned a ruling that GM was liable for the 1989 death of a teen-ager in one of the trucks, voiding a $105.2-million award to the victim's family.

GM's rebuttal to a "Dateline NBC" program that portrayed the trucks as dangerous disclosed that toy rocket engines had been used to fake an explosion in a collision staged for the broadcast.

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