NHTSA closes probe into 2M GM trucks, SUVs

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday is closing a five-year-old investigation into more than 2 million older General Motors SUVs and pickup trucks, and will not demand a recall over brake line failures caused by rust in states that salt their roads.

The auto safety agency is ending one of the longest investigations in its history into its probe of 1999-2003 full-size GM pickups and SUVs. But it is issuing a safety advisory in salt-belt states for owners of those GM vehicles — as well as other vehicles at least eight years ago — telling owners to get regular car washes in the winter, and have their brake lines inspected.

NHTSA said its investigation found 2,514 complaints, including reports of 88 crashes and 20 injuries. But it said the vehicles didn't have higher failure rates than comparable vehicles that used similar brake line assemblies.

The agency said its investigation did not identify any specific defects in brake line retention or routing that were causing or contributing to the failures.

NHTSA's new consumer advisory covers at least 5 million GM vehicles and all other vehicles built in the 2007 model year or earlier in salt belt states. It warned those vehicles may be susceptible to brake line rust after seven or eight years of exposure to winter road salt.

The advisory includes the 1999-2007 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500, 2500 and 3500 series pickups; 2000-2006 Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs; and 2002-2006 Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Avalanche SUVs. It also covers millions of vehicles from other manufacturers built in 2007 and earlier.

GM spokesman Alan Adler said Thursday GM supported the consumer advisory from NHTSA urging regular maintenance of brake lines on older vehicles: "GM has proactively suggested to consumers that they perform regular undercarriage cleaning and post-winter brake line inspections to check for wear."

NHTSA's decision is a win for GM, which has long contended the issue was not a defect.

GM noted previously that the automaker has long urged owners to have their brake lines inspected the same way brake pads need replacement for wear.

"In fact, more than 20 states require brake-line inspections at one- or two-year intervals or when stopped for a violation," Adler said last year.

In 2010, NHTSA opened an investigation into 1.77 million 1999-2003 Chevrolet Avalanche, Chevrolet Silverado, Chevrolet Suburban, GMC Sierra, GMC Tahoe and GMC Yukon vehicles in states — including Michigan — where road salt is used in winter. The investigation was upgraded to an engineering analysis in January 2011.

Last year, the president of a Virginia advocacy group called on GM to recall 6 million older SUVs and pickup trucks for braking problems stemming from brake-line rust. "These 6 million pickups and SUVs endanger the lives and safety of their owners due to a loss of braking related to brake-line corrosion," Peter Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, said last year.

NHTSA is urging regular washing of older vehicles during the winter and a thorough washing including the undercarriage at the end of the winter. It wants owners to replace brake lines if there are signs of severe rust.

The warning covers vehicles sold or currently registered in 20 salt belt states and the District of Columbia including Michigan, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.