The Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, in Detroit (iStock photo).

The Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, in Detroit (iStock photo).

When General Motors CEO Mary Barra appeared before Congress in early April to apologize for the company’s 10-year cover-up of a lethal safety defect, it was a headline-grabbing moment. But it was not unprecedented. Hovering over  Barra was the ghost of another momentous GM mea culpa, delivered to Congress nearly half a century ago.

On March 22, 1966, James Roche, GM’s president, admitted to a Senate investigative hearing that the giant automaker, known for its hubris, had hired private detectives to follow and harass a young safety advocate, Ralph Nader, because he had exposed defects in GM cars. In words of remorse strikingly similar to those Barra would use years later, he told the angry senators that he was “fully responsible” for the “unhappy episode.” It was done “without my knowledge … I did not know.”

Barra has found herself in a parallel situation because for a decade GM failed to recall millions of cars with ignition switch flaws that could shut down the vehicles’ electrical system in mid-travel, producing stalls, loss of power brakes and steering, and — deadliest of all — airbag failures in crashes. She was “deeply sorry … I did not know,” she told the April hearing. She has since repeated the apology, along with promises to change a decades-old GM “culture” that, she admits, has put dollars before consumer safety.

Roche’s 1966 admission of guilt helped to fundamentally reshape the future of auto safety. It brought national fame to Nader and turned his book, “Unsafe At Any Speed,” into a bestseller. Nader sued GM for harassment; the corporation paid him nearly a half-million dollars to settle the suit, which he used to fund his aggressive advocacy projects, starting with “Nader’s Raiders,” a nemesis of corporate and government misbehavior. Meanwhile, the car companies were soundly rebuffed by Congress later in 1966 when they tried to stop the move toward federal auto safety regulation by proposing that the industry be allowed to self-regulate. The damage done to GM’s credibility by Roche’s admission was an important factor in ensuring that a virtually unanimous Congress would pass a landmark law empowering government to oversee auto safety.

For those expecting the latest scandal to lead to similarly sweeping changes, a reality check is in order. Roche’s apology was made when pro-consumer lawmakers had more influence, and were able to resist the power of huge corporations. In contrast, today’s Congress is riven by political and ideological divisions that have marginalized pro-consumer forces and thus played into the agendas of big business. Barra’s protestations of remorse thus are unlikely to lead to meaningful laws or a significant upgrade in regulatory staffing. Some members of the Senate have introduced legislation to criminalize aspects of the corporate misconduct revealed by Barra’s testimony, but such legislation has little chance of success in the current congressional climate.

And even when safety laws are passed, they may not mean much. The deadly Ford Explorer rollovers linked to defective Firestone tires led to passage in 2000 of the so-called TREAD Act, a law intended to discourage dilatory or inadequate recalls. Yet it failed to prevent Toyota from seriously delaying a fix to its car with sudden unintended acceleration defects, nor did it deter GM from hiding its ignition switch defect for years.

Ben Kelley

Ben Kelley

In her damage-control efforts, Barra has sought to characterize the ignition switch cover-up as a one-off — “an extraordinary situation… unique” — while assuring that there will be no more such deceit under her leadership. But she has also admitted that for years GM’s culture — of which, like it or not, she is a product — has been one of putting profit ahead of safety. So it is hard to believe that the automaker may not have been concealing other serious defects from the public and regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It is also hard to believe that a “dollars over safety” mindset does not prevail at other car companies, given industry resistance to tough safety regulation and the emphasis on the bottom line.

An example: For years Chrysler resisted demands for recall of Jeep Grand Cherokees with fuel tanks that can rupture too easily in rear-end impacts, creating serious fire hazards. A year ago the company finally agreed to recall and fix some of the vehicles, but only when NHTSA belatedly insisted. Yet Chrysler still has not made the fixes — a delay that saves money for the corporation while putting Grand Cherokee owners at continued peril.

NHTSA’s acquiescence in such sleight-of-hand lends support to arguments that it is too responsive to the cost-containment agenda of the auto companies. Its inability to effectively police the industry has almost certainly invited such profit-driven misconduct. Recently a top NHTSA attorney, in comments to an auto industry group, admitted that “the first line of defense against safety defects is not NHTSA.” Rather, he said, it is the auto companies themselves. “Our agency’s job is to make sure your company is doing its job, and to catch problems when it does not,” he said, leaving unaddressed the obvious question of why NHTSA failed for a decade to “catch” GM’s hidden-in-plain-sight ignition switch defect. The answer to that question is that NHTSA is abysmally underfunded and understaffed, and lacks a foundation of tough laws to support its regulatory mission. Nothing in today’s political environment suggests that is going to change very soon.

Ben Kelley is a former U.S. Transportation Department official and board member of the Center for Auto Safety.