Defects on GM trucks blamed for fatal fires

October 18, 1994|By Michael D. Towle | Michael D. Towle,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Department said yesterday that more than 4.5 million General Motors pickup trucks on the road today have a severe design defect capable of killing drivers and passengers.

Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena said the department will hold a public hearing Dec. 6 in Washington to determine whether to order GM to recall its C/K pickup trucks, built %J between 1973 and 1987 with side-mounted fuel tanks.

Mr. Pena said the government, through research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has determined that about 150 people have been killed because of the faulty design since the trucks were introduced.

The deaths, Mr. Pena said, were "a result of side-impact fires in crashes that were otherwise survivable."

"NHTSA attributes this vulnerability to GM's design and placement of the fuel tanks outside the frame rails of these trucks," the secretary said. "The record clearly shows that there is an increased risk associated with these GM pickups, and leads me to conclude at this point that that risk is unreasonable."

General Motors called Mr. Pena's remarks "unjustified."

"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 Bruce MacDonald, a GM spokesman in Detroit.

In April 1993 the Transportation Department asked GM to recall the trucks, but the company declined.

The pickups with so-called "side-saddle" tanks have been the subject of lawsuits by victims and victims' families nationwide.

Mr. Pena said records indicated that GM may have known in the early 1970s that placing the truck's fuel tanks outside the frame was a hazard. But, he said, GM didn't change the design until after 1987 because the design allowed GM to claim that its trucks went farther on a tank of gas than those of its competitors.

The secretary said GM's responsibility in making the C/K trucks went beyond meeting federal safety standards. He said GM, under the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act, was also obligated to produce trucks that "operate safely in real-world conditions."

"Meeting a safety standard does not absolve a manufacturer of its responsibility to produce safe vehicles," Mr. Pena said.

Mr. MacDonald, the GM spokesman, said Mr. Pena was "politicizing" the regulatory process. "The suggestion that GM put sales ahead of safety is outrageous and wrong," he said.

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