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Government Takes Aim at GM Pickups : Autos: It accuses company of knowingly producing trucks prone to fires in crashes. Company vows court fight.


WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Federico Pena on Monday accused General Motors Corp. of knowingly producing millions of defective pickup trucks that can explode and burn in side-impact crashes.

Despite that knowledge, GM chose for at least 15 years not to alter the design of the trucks, Pena said. "Approximately 150 people have died as a result of side-impact fires in these trucks, in crashes that were otherwise survivable," he said.

Pena voiced his accusations in announcing that his department has made an initial finding that a safety defect exists in GM C-K trucks with fuel tanks mounted outside steel rails that support the cargo bed.

The trucks were manufactured for the 1973 through 1987 model years and include the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet C-K 1500 and 2500 series.

GM officials called Pena's claims "outrageous and wrong."

"These trucks are recognized even by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have fully met the applicable safety standards for fuel system integrity in collision," said GM Vice President Bruce G. MacDonald, the company's chief spokesman. "They outperform many newer vehicles in terms of both fuel system crashworthiness and occupant protection."

About 9 million GM trucks were manufactured with the sidesaddle tanks. How many of the full-size vehicles remain on the road is unclear: The government says 4.5 million, while GM puts the figure at 6.7 million.

The trucks were featured in a 1992 segment of the "Dateline NBC" TV show in which the news crew, officials confirmed, had placed tiny rocket engines in a truck to assure that it exploded during a filmed crash. The network later apologized for the program.

The department's initial finding of defect Monday could lead to a final determination that a safety problem exists.

Should that be made, the Transportation Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, working through the Justice Department, could seek a court-ordered recall of the affected vehicles.

Forced recalls are rare, costly and time-consuming. The government has gone to court against auto makers and their suppliers only eight times since the founding of the NHTSA in 1966.

The government won seven of those cases. But it suffered a major defeat in the early 1980s when it attempted to force GM to call back millions of its Chevrolet Citation, Oldsmobile Omega, Buick Skylark and Pontiac Phoenix cars to repair allegedly defective brakes.

GM officials said Monday that they would go to court again to defend the reputation of the C-K pickups.

A GM official who asked not to be identified accused Pena of trying to hold the company to a double standard. "We meet or exceed all existing federal standards for fuel system integrity, yet he says we are defective," the official said.

Pena conceded that the GM trucks meet existing federal standards. But he said federal auto safety laws place auto makers "under two broad mandates: first, to meet applicable safety standards in producing vehicles, and second, to produce vehicles that operate safely in real-world conditions."

Public hearings on the department's initial findings are scheduled to begin Dec. 6.

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