Warning to Owners of Recalled GM Vehicles in Houston

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Courtesy Senate Democrats Media Center
GM CEO Mary Barra gets ready to testify about saving a buck a car while victims' loved ones look on.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra has had a rough few days. She's been subject to intense grilling from House and Senate inquiries regarding GM's actions, or lack thereof, leading to the recall of 2.53 million vehicles with ignition switch problems. As USA Today reported, "thirteen deaths and 32 crashes have been linked to the defect."

The car maker did not replace these faulty switches because "it would have added about a dollar to the cost of each car, according to an internal GM document provided to U.S. congressional investigators," Reuters reports. And who could blame them? When you crank out millions of cars, that extra buck adds up.

But while Barra might be in the hotseat for a few days, we're not sure if she's riding to and from Capitol Hill in, say, a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, like the one in which Amber Marie Rose died after her airbag failed to deploy. We sincerely hope for Barra's well-being that she is being transported to these hearings in a vehicle that will not suddenly stop dead in its tracks.

No, the people who might be in a slightly hotter seats are the millions of drivers of the recalled vehicles. People who are dependent upon GM, through GM dealerships, to fix the problem. But what if a dealership, either through apathy or incompetence, refuses to abide by a franchise agreement requiring them to service all recalled GM vehicles?

That was my experience with Knapp Chevrolet this week. My car was actually recalled in 2012 -- and is again subject to this latest round of recalls. It's supposed to be easy: you're supposed to be able to call a GM dealership and schedule service for a recalled vehicle.

But two employees at Knapp gave me two different explanations for why they could not service my car. And if it happened to me, I wonder how many other drivers of recalled vehicles have been turned away by Knapp, or any other GM dealership in Houston. What can a person do if the people who are supposed to fix the problem simply won't? This went from being an individual customer service issue to a public safety matter. Dealers are supposed to service recalled vehicles. Period.

To clarify, one Knapp employee told me that because I had not received a recall letter from GM in the mail, they couldn't honor the terms. But while Knapp Chevrolet may have not slinked into the 1990s with fancy internet technology, GM has: the company's warranty and recalls page allows owners to type in their vehicle identification number (VIN) and see if their car has been recalled. That was the case with mine: it was actually recalled in 2012. And while there was a PDF of the letter on the site, it wasn't mailed to me, so Knapp could not help me.

I followed up with another Knapp employee, who actually typed my VIN into his computer while we were on the phone. While this produced the same information I was looking at -- an issue with the fuel pump module -- he said that it was not in fact a recall. I asked him why the letter I was looking at stated "your vehicle is involved in safety recall 12190," and he simply explained to me that it wasn't really a recall.

Now, I wanted to be sure. I tend to trust mechanics, because I know nothing about cars. As far as I know, my car is powered by a band of elves casting magic spells under the hood. But I called GM's recall specialists to find out if my car really was being recalled. They told me it was. They didn't know why anyone at one of their dealerships would say otherwise. I asked if they would contact the dealership to find out what the problem was, and I was told they would.

A GM representative got in touch with me and said she left a voicemail for Knapp's fixed operations director, Paul Foust. When I spoke with Foust, he had my VIN handy. He said my car had been recalled and asked how he could help. I explained that one of his employees said it wasn't recalled, and he didn't see how that could be. But he didn't seem to be too interested otherwise.

When I called the GM representative back, she told me she received a message from Foust in which he explained that his employee may have accidentally typed in the wrong VIN when I first called.

This means that the employee would have had to type in the wrong VIN that resulted in the same year, make, and model of my car -- with the same fuel pump module report -- that for some reason was not a recall. It makes about as much sense as the elves under the hood.

I then called Knapp's general manager, Robby Knapp, who got back to me right away. I explained the situation to him and asked if he wanted to comment for a story I was writing in which I would try to warn owners of recalled GM vehicles in Houston that certain dealerships -- for whatever reason -- may not honor the terms of the recall. He did not want to comment. And why would he? What would he possibly have to gain by finding out whether his service personnel didn't understand what a recall was? There are always more customers out there.

But GM spokesman Jim Cain wanted to comment. He was bothered to hear that a GM dealership was unable to figure out a vehicle had been recalled, even though the information is readily available.

"It's supposed to be easy for the customers," Cain said. "Mistakes happen, but we would hope that people would go the extra mile under these circumstances." He said that the information I got from Knapp "was clearly a mistake."

"That's not what we expect, and that's not how we train people," Cain said.

So what should the owner of a recalled vehicle do if a dealership denies to honor the required service? Cain says it would be appropriate to work "with another service adviser."

He also recommended contacting GM's customer care center. If anyone has an issue with an uncooperative dealer, Cain said, the GM representatives will do their best to assist.

Cain also did something no one at Knapp Chevrolet would do: he apologized. And he said something that, in light of millions of recalled vehicles and 13 deaths over a a fifty-seven-cent part, I found remarkably appropriate. He said "This is a time when we need to exceed people's expectations."

He said he'd follow up with Knapp Chevrolet. And I fully expect the good people at Knapp Chevrolet to tell him that I'm out to lunch, or a liar. As a reporter, it wouldn't be the first time. I told Cain that didn't matter -- what mattered is that GM owners in Houston have the ability to get their recalled vehicles serviced by any GM dealership, and not just the ones who feel like it.

People deserve to drive cars that will not malfunction because of manufacturer error -- that's true whether you're commuting an hour to break your back for five figures, or if you're a six-figure CEO making a quick trip to Capitol Hill to assure senators you're doing whatever you can to restore the public's trust.

After years of looking the other way, GM finally seems to be doing the right thing by addressing the problems. But in order to do that, dealerships have to be willing to fix those problems. If they aren't, and you're behind the wheel of a recalled vehicle, you need to know about it.

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