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The Only Way to Make Our Cars Safer is to Send Negligent Auto Industry Executives to Jail by David H. Peirez

October 22, 2014 Posted in: Our Blog

Those automotive executives whose calculated indifference to air bag defects has put millions of drivers at risk need to face criminal charges that could put them behind bars for years to come.

The death of a Florida motorist from metal fragments flying out of the air bag of her 2001 Honda Accord has finally prompted the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to demand a recall of 12 million cars that could be equipped with these malfunctioning and life threatening airbags. The order vehicles made by Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, General Motors and Ford.

This action comes on the heels of months of government hearings looking into safety issues at General Motors where the motor giant took more than 10 years to issue a recall for faulty ignition switches that placed drivers at risk and is blamed for 13 deaths. The concealment or ignoring facts which were evident constitute “reckless disregard for life,” the general definition of involuntary manslaughter. According to Billeasterly.com, corporate lawyers have come under particular scrutiny as it is alleged that they knew the full extent of the problems and yet sought to keep the company’s remedial actions secret from the families of crash victims.  Based on these two incidents alone it is clear the oversight required to prevent our automobiles from becoming the murder weapons of choice by indifferent automotive executives is not only broken but barely functioning.

One legislative proposal designed to give the system more teeth would increase the maximum civil fine to $300 million from $35 million for an automaker’s failure to inform NHTSA of safety defects. It is this author’s opinion that civil fines are woefully insufficient and merely place the burden on the shareholder. The sad reality is nothing will change until executives who either looked the other way when told of safety failures or permitted a corporate culture of cover up are held personally responsible.  That responsibility would mean imposing penalties that include serious jail time.

Just as Wall Street executives who engage in insider trading must now balance the cost of getting caught and going to jail against illicit profits made by breaking the law, so too should auto executives balance corporate greed with personal incarceration.  Creating these criminal statues would be far easier to pass than seeking to change the creaky and unresponsive bureaucracy of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. A fourth level federal bureaucrat may not race to confront GM or Ford, but a hungry prosecutor wishing to reveal criminal indifference by Detroit would certainly move far faster and more effectively in protecting the motoring public.

Against this much delayed air bag recall it is clear that the cost-benefit analyses being done in the boardrooms of Detroit automotive giants are deeply flawed; they weigh the dollar cost of fixing potentially dangerous problems versus the dollar cost of lawsuits that might result. It is not lost on the families of victims than even if auto executives are forced to resign in the wake of these deaths they still have their lives, their freedom, and more often than not a generous golden parachute. We need to make sure that these executives weigh another factor when they think of cost, namely the price of going to jail.

Congress should act accordingly but, given the number of recalls now being made for potentially lethal air bags, they may want to get to Capitol Hill on D.C.’s Metro subway.