The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has ordered local authorities to ban people from driving recalled BMWs that have not received emergency safety checks. Drivers cannot use the cars except to drive them to have the required checks done.
It is the first time the ministry has banned people from driving a specific make of vehicle. The unprecedented measure was taken to ease concerns following dozens of BMWs catching fire this year. It seems an inevitable step to prevent additional fires.
But this incident must not end with the safety checks. The automotive manufacturer that made and sold the faulty cars should be liable, not the customers who bought the vehicles without knowing about the problem.
We cannot but hold BMW responsible. BMW Korea Chairman Kim Hyo-joon apologized belatedly on Monday, but the precise cause of the fires has not been identified. Under mounting criticism, the carmaker eventually blamed a flaw in the exhaust gas recirculation module, but that can hardly be trusted.
Furthermore, a BMW engine caught fire despite having passed a safety check. Documents submitted to the Environment Ministry reportedly reveal that BMW knew about defects in the module in March 2017. A cover-up is suspected. BMW’s insincerity in dealing with life-threatening engine fires is beyond understanding.
Fires involving unrecalled models are a serious problem. Ten out of 39 BMWs whose engines caught fire this year were unrecalled models, which means the current recall is not a fundamental solution. This is an issue that requires a quick decision on whether to expand the recall, but has not been properly addressed yet.
Attention should also be paid to the fact that a new precedent of responding to faulty cars has been set with the order of a driving ban. It could serve as a new option in responding to a vehicle safety problem. But whenever cars are recalled due to engine fires or other serious flaws, the government will likely face heavy pressure to issue the order. If the precedent is overused without clear guidelines, that will lead to chaos. Therefore, clear guidelines on when to issue such a ban must be established.
According to an analysis by Rep. Min Kyung-wook of the Liberty Korea Party, 1.5 out of 10,000 BMWs caught fire in the first half of the year in Korea. That was claimed to be the largest number of vehicles to catch fire among surveyed carmakers. GM Korea followed with 1.24 units and Hyundai Motor with 1.18 units per 10,000.
These figures include arson and fires involving old models and trucks as well as fires involving new models. Considering that old, beat-up models account for a small portion of BMWs in Korea, the BMW fires are more serious than statistics show.
If the government had paid closer attention to the data, it could have taken proactive steps. More than half of the BMW fires this year took place in July and August.
When it comes to taking the emergency measure of a driving ban, once is enough. The series of BMW fires has revealed loopholes in regulations on imported cars. The government must fix all loopholes this time, not to mention holding BMW responsible.
Taking this opportunity, a bill allowing punitive damages should be legislated. Three years ago, the ministry and National Assembly moved to enact punitive damages in response to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, but the move fizzled. A code on punitive damages is needed to prod carmakers to double down on vehicle safety.
The government should also consider allowing more class action lawsuits. If a group of consumers wins a compensation suit against a company, and its consequences could apply to all of the other consumers, a company will realize how valuable their customers are.
It is not a good way to serve customers for a company to wait and see how customers respond before making its next move.
The authorities must not let foreign manufacturers treat domestic consumers like doormats.