It’s been a rough few days for auto makers.
News broke last week that Volkswagen will be fined because the carmaker manipulated the data from its diesel vehicles to make emissions look lower, deceiving U.S. environmental regulators.
And on Thursday, General Motors reached a $900 million settlement with the Justice Department for covering up a defect in its ignition switches that claimed the lives of at least 120 victims over 17 years. Almost 1,500 victims have been pursuing a civil suit against the company.
Most of the chatter about the GM deal has been in the vein of this USA Today editorial calling the punishment too lenient. It looks like all GM’s employees will escape criminal charges, even though the company knew about the problem before the faulty cars even went into production in 2002. The newspaper noted that the company’s stock was up 11 cents on the news of the settlement’s details.
Auto defects are a serious issue. According to Edmunds.com “63 million passenger vehicles were recalled in 2014,” the biggest year for recalls ever. Most of the defects are not as serious as what GM is under fire for. The ignition switch problem affected 7 million vehicles over 17 years, Edmunds reports.
What’s interesting, from a safety perspective that encompasses streets as well as vehicles, is that the auto companies are held to account for dangerous conditions to a much greater degree than the engineers who design our streets.
After all, about 33,000 people are killed on American streets annually — a much higher rate than most of our peer countries — and street design is a major factor. But the designers of streets are rarely, if ever, sued when someone is killed because of dangerous, high-speed conditions.