If you thought that Toyota’s brake recalls are beneficial for competing automakers, it’s time to think again. The Detroit News reports this week that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration intends to investigate 6.2 million GM vehicles for possible brake irregularities similar to those that have plagued Toyota.

The investigation will include more than 6 million pickup trucks and SUVs, including the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD and GMC Sierra 2500HD pickup trucks, among other models. According to the NHTSA, the 110 complaints so far “allege the loss of braking effectiveness due ot brake line rupture because of corrosion,” but do not include fatalities or serious injuries.

It’s likely no accident that this probe was announced the same week that federal investigators promised to fine Toyota $16.4 million for it’s own brake malfunctions. But, as PrawfsBlawg notes, that’s chump change for Toyota, which has already hehmoragged $900 million in recall-related expenses and is losing $155 million in sales opportunities each week. Similarly, potential federal fines regarding GM’s brake problems aren’t likely to make a serious dent in the company’s profits.

But brake problems aren’t GM’s only legal hiccup. A recent investigation by Myron Levin of FairWarning.org reveals that GM’s gas tank configuration makes some models prone to dangerous post-accident explosions. Fifteen years ago, the NHTSA began probing GM’s trucks, responding to reports that “the risk of burning to death in side-impact crashes was much higher in the GM trucks than in rival full-size pickups.” But, Levin writes, the agency dropped its investigation under pressure from the auto giant and its friends in Congress. Since then, more than 100 people have been killed by GM models with twin twenty-gallon side-saddled gas tanks. And since the investigation was dropped, GM has settled hundreds of lawsuits to the tune of $500 million.

Although GM is clearly no stranger to expensive and embarassing accidents, they have recently managed to stay under the radar… at least compared to Toyota. This Monday, before the NHTSA announced its probe, GM said that it will introduce a brake override by 2012 to provide “an additional safeguard to enhance customer confidence” that Toyota’s troubles impaired.

It remains uncertain what form the new NHTSA investigation will take, and whether GM’s existing vehicles with potentially harmful brakes will stay on the road. The government’s majority ownership of GM adds yet another level of complexity. But what’s certain is that the Toyota ordeal has drastically heightened scrutiny over auto safety, and could have placed GM directly in the cross hairs of federal regulators.

Photo credit: Automotive Concepts (Creative Commons)

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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.