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Corroded brake lines on a 2004 Chevrolet Avalanche (Photo submitted by truck owner)

Throughout the year, General Motors has repeatedly issued recalls for various makes and models of vehicles suffering from too many different manufacturing flaws to easily keep track of them all.

Let's see, there were those faulty ignition switches (responsible for at least 13 deaths during the 10 years various GM employees knew yet said nothing about the problem); flawed transmission systems; defective fuel transfer pumps; faulty fuel gauges; bad transmission shift cables; loss of brake vacuum assist disabling the hydraulic boost assist; bad seat belts; and a variety of electrical or overheating problems that cause various car parts to catch on fire.

The recalls seemed to touch every conceivable part and brand, even including brands GM doesn't make anymore, like Saturn, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Hummer, not to mention its dwindling band of survivors -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC. 

In fact, there've been so many recalls, it's tempting to say, “Just make it simple and tell me what General Motors stuff hasn't been recalled.”

OK, the answer is “brake-line systems prone to rusting out.” To date, GM hasn't issued any recalls based on that little problem, even though brake failure is kind of a safety issue. 

Lots of salt

Should it? Last January, as most of the nation slogged through a wet, snowy winter with lots of salt and other corrosive matter on the roads, ConsumerAffairs reported hearing from many GM truck owners who complained that, compared to their other vehicles, GM trucks seemed unusually prone to having their brake-line systems rust or corrode.

GM's spokesmen countered that their brake systems are no more corrosion-prone than anyone else's.

"Brake line wear on vehicles is a maintenance issue that affects the auto industry, not just General Motors," said GM spokesman Alan Adler. "The trucks in question are long out of factory warranty and owners' manuals urge customers to have their brake lines inspected. In fact, more than 20 states require brake line inspections at one- or two-year intervals or when stopped for a violation."

Besides, GM argues, a set of rusty brake lines isn't a safety threat since GM trucks generally have two sets of brakes anyway -- so it the back brakes fail, why worry? You can just use the front ones.

NHTSA to the rescue?

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A 2000 Chevrolet Silverado (GM photo)

At the same time, we reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) was collecting and investigating similar corrosion-related complaints. This, of course, is the same NHTSA that is currently about as popular as a puddle of spilled gasoline in safety circles.

Indeed, Chevy owner Joe Palumbo has made similar complaints for years, to General Motors and the NHTSA and on his blog GM Unsafe Brakes.

We are not talking about super high mileage or very old vehicles, this is occurring on GM vehicles as young as 3 years old with less than 40,000 miles on the clock.  This problem is especially severe in the snow belt states and Canada where salt is used in the winter …. GM, as well as the NHTSA, has failed to acknowledge that substandard material is being used for the most critical safety component in your vehicle."

In July, with the General Motors recall scandal in full gear, GM truck owners complained that the various recalls and safety reviews completely ignored the problems with brake line corrosion.

A typical example came from Normand of Pompano Beach, Florida on July 5: "I don't understand why GM doesn't install stainless steel tube on their vehicle. This is a safety item … I've just experienced my second brake failure and this is truly scary, and in order to correct the problem I bought a replacement kit, and the difference in the cost between stainless steel and regular steel was $20." (Florida, please note, does not use salt on its roads, last we heard). 

Only a few weeks earlier, the National Legal and Policy Center advocacy group had posted on its website that “The continued denial by GM that there is ... safety issue with their trucks that are prone to brake line corrosion proves that the company has a long way to go before they change a culture that puts profits ahead of motorists' safety.” The NLPC also called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to expend its investigation into the matter.

Maintenance issue

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But General Motors maintains that it is a maintenance issue; truck owners need to take care of their vehicles and the owners' manuals all urge regular brake-line inspections. And there's no denying that, yes, corrosion is a legitimate maintenance issue for any vehicle.

The problem is that even truck owners who are downright scrupulous in taking care of regular maintenance tasks continue having these problems. This week we got an email from Marsha in Manassas, Va., who complained about her “GM Yukon’s brake lines rusting out, causing contamination of fuel pump, brake lines, brakes, rotors, backing plate, level sensors at the tune of $3660.”

Lack of maintenance can't possibly be the issue, she says; Marsha maintains a spreadsheet documenting her entire truck-maintenance history down to the oil changes:

“Our 2005 Yukon has 116K miles and has been to the … dealership for a total of 37 times since the vehicle was purchased at a maintenance cost of over 8K. In September 2013, my husband replaced the rotors and brake pads himself.  October 2013 the vehicle was back in for an oil change and [the dealership] performed their World Class inspection and saw no issues. … October 4 we had the vehicle towed to the dealership and found out the brake lines had rusted, causing the contamination that led to the high bill above.”

Nor is Marsha's the only recent complaint. Timothy from Brunswick, Maryland, posted on Sept. 28:

I bought my Chevy Avalanche new in 2004. I have not driven it in the winter, I keep it in the garage at my lake house and only drive it around 400 miles a year. This truck has never seen the mud or been in water but still has brake lines that rusted so much. I lost all fluid and could have been killed. Pictures are attached. I would like to know if Chevy will help pay for this repair. If not, this will be the [last] GM product ever purchased for and from anyone in my family. I understand things happen but this is a huge safety concern.

Michael in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, reported a similar problem with his Silverado on Sept. 29:

I purchased a 1985 Chevy K10 pickup and drove it 17 years before passing it on to my son who has it today. I liked it so much I bought a new 2002 Chevy Silverado which now has 76,000 miles on it. I drove to my parents' house for a visit Sunday, September 28th, 2014 (my 50th birthday) and noticed fluid dripping from underneath the truck when I got out. The brake lines under the driver's side were all rusted out and sprung a leak. Thank God it did not happen on the road where someone could have been hurt in a accident! My friend who is a mechanic advised me not to drive the truck for he had repaired a number of these. He knew exactly what was wrong and why and advised me to replace all the lines now for they would not last much longer for next time I might not be so lucky! He towed it to his shop and is now repairing it, cost around $1000 or more. My 1985 still has all the original brake lines on it!!! Whatever happened to GM quality and safety? How many people will be injured or killed because of your cost savings?

In fairness, it should be noted that condensation can cause corrosion and condensation occurs on almost any metallic substance left outside, so that even trucks that are parked nearly year-round like Michael's are candidates for corrosion despite their low mileage.

Another Silverado driver, Ed from Byron, MI, wrote a shorter version of the same complaint in August: “My brakes failed completely.”

Pedal to the floor

That month another Michigan Silverado owner, Perry from Sterling, wrote:

2005 Silverado - Our brake lines rusted out and leaked right above the ABS module, resulting in no brakes at all, pedal went right to the floor. … No more GM vehicles for me. Putting on cheap, very rust prone brake lines is an extreme safety hazard. Bottom line is, why does GM put an exhaust system on these vehicles designed to last the life of the vehicle but skimp on the brake lines which puts people's lives on the line?!

Despite these and other similar complaints, none of General Motors' recalls from this month involve brake lines prone to corrosion, only brake cables prone to being improperly connected (2015 Corvettes), module back plates that might fracture in the event of airbag deployment (ditto), and contaminated chassis electronic modules prone to shorting out (various models of Cadillac, Buick, Chevy and GMC from 2013 and 2014, including Silverado and Yukon).


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