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Updated: Tue, 01 Apr 2014 13:52:46 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

GM, safety agency face Congressional grilling over recalls



General Motors CEO Mary Barra will be asked by two Congressional subcommittees why it took GM a decade to recall cars with faulty ignition switches that the company says are now linked to 13 deaths. Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

General Motors CEO Mary Barra will be asked by two Congressional subcommittees why it took GM a decade to recall cars with faulty ignition switches that the company says are now linked to 13 deaths. Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

General Motors' new chief executive and the head of the main U.S. auto safety watchdog headed to Congress today to testify about a defect in small cars that is linked to 13 deaths.

In written testimony released ahead of a Tuesday House subcommittee hearing, acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Friedman said GM had information connecting defective ignition switches to the non-deployment of air bags, but didn't share it until last month.

GM CEO Mary Barra will also testify. Committee members will press Barra and Friedman to explain why neither the company nor the safety agency moved to recall millions of small cars with a defective ignition switch, even though GM knew of the problem as early as 2001.

"Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in (the small car) program, but I can tell you that we will find out," Barra said in prepared testimony submitted to the subcommittee.

GM has recalled 2.6 million cars for the faulty switch. That recall prompted GM to name a new safety chief and review its recall processes.

GM continued its efforts to show regulators and consumers that it is more focused on safety, announcing the recall of 1.5 million more vehicles on Monday, including 145,700 in Canada, for a power steering problem.

6.3 million vehicles recalled

With Monday's recall, GM has now recalled 6.3 million vehicles since February. GM estimates the actions will cost it $750 million.

The House hearing — and a separate one Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee — will likely be tense and emotional. At least a dozen family members of victims will attend, wearing blue shirts featuring a photo of 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose, who was killed in a 2005 Cobalt crash, and the words "Protect Our Children."

Barra will apologize for the loss of life, but may try to limit her answers to Congress, citing an ongoing internal review and government investigations.

"When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators, and with our customers," she said in the prepared testimony.

Barra met with families of some of the victims on Monday, GM spokespeople said.

Families ask to get GM cars off the road

Families of some of the victims of the ignition switch fault gave a press conference ahead of the hearings, demanding that GM take steps to get all of the affected cars off the roads.

The cars should not be driven until the fault can be fixed, said Laura Christian, whose daughter died in 2005 in an accident involving a Chevy Cobalt.

She also asked Congress to pass legislation that would give the NHTSA the tools to hold auto companies to account.

“The car manufacturers cannot be permitted to act as if there was an acceptable level of loss of life,” she said.

Another bereaved mother, Terry DiBatista, described how she helped her daughter, Amber choose a Chevy Cobalt in 2005 because of its safety features. Her daughter died when the ignition switched off on the highway, leaving the car difficult to control.

DiBatista called for criminal investigation into GM's conduct.

“It’s clear GM’s concern was with its bottom line and not the safety of our loved ones,” she said.

Here are some questions lawmakers are likely to ask Barra and Friedman, and why:

GM

Q: Why did it take so long to recall these vehicles?

GM's own timeline, provided to the government, indicates that it knew as early as 2001 that there were problems with the ignition switch in the Saturn Ion. That switch was later used in the Cobalt and other cars. GM eventually learned of accidents and fatalities linked to the switch, and conducted multiple reviews. Yet the cars were only recalled this year. Barra will need to explain why GM didn't act sooner.

Q: Why was a proposed fix never implemented?

According to a timeline prepared by the House subcommittee, GM engineers developed a fix for the switch in 2004, but it was cancelled in 2005 because of its long lead time and cost. Engineers also devised a new key design that would prevent the key from falling out of the ignition, which caused the engine to stall. The fix was approved but later cancelled. Lawmakers will want to know why, and who was involved. Barra may not be willing to name names at this point. She has said she only learned of the problem last December, shortly after being named CEO.

Q. Shouldn't GM tell owners to stop driving the recalled cars until they are fixed?

GM insists that the cars are safe as long as owners remove anything extra from their key chains, to avoid weighing down the ignition switch. And dealers have permission to give loaner cars to concerned customers until GM can fix their cars. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who sits on the Senate subcommittee, is among those calling for GM to make a stronger statement and tell owners to stop driving their cars immediately.

NHTSA

Q. Why didn't NHTSA open an investigation, which is often the first step toward a recall?

As early as 2005, the agency had numerous consumer complaints, service bulletins GM sent to dealers describing the ignition problems and data from a fatal crash in Maryland. And in late 2007, one official recommended investigating reports that air bags in the cars weren't deploying. An agency panel decided against that because it said a trend wasn't evident.

Q. Did NHTSA get enough information from GM?

Safety regulators have sent GM a special order to get more information on the recall, but the automaker's response isn't due until Thursday.

In his remarks, Friedman says the agency would have ordered the recall if it had the information GM provided only recently. But safety experts say there was other available information at the time that warranted a recall.

Q. Does NHTSA have the staff and expertise to deal with the volume of data it's getting?

After the Ford-Firestone tire recall in the late 1990s, Congress required automakers to report more information to the government about possible defects. NHTSA also gets more than 40,000 complaints per year from drivers. Lawmakers want to know if they agency has the resources to do its job.

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