U.S. transportation chief pledges hard look at GM recall

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 13, 2014 3:39pm EDT

Flags wave behind a General Motors Corp sign in downtown in Detroit May 28, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Flags wave behind a General Motors Corp sign in downtown in Detroit May 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday promised an "aggressive investigation" into whether General Motors was slow to report to the federal government problems with ignition switches in its autos, which have led to 12 deaths.

"The questions we are asking are whether there was a timeliness issue with GM's bringing to our attention the issues regarding this ignition switch," Foxx told a Senate panel.

"Had we known there was an issue, that might have changed the outcome of those initial crash investigations" by the government, Foxx said.

GM is recalling 1.6 million of its vehicles following problems with ignition switches that unexpectedly turn off during operation, sometimes at high speeds.

The problem with older model cars results in engines shutting down and other electrical equipment, including air bags, not functioning.

Foxx said if there are delays in industry reporting problems to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Transportation Department will respond in a "very, very tough" manner.

NHTSA's probe is one of many investigations into how GM handled reports of ignition switch problems that first came to light at least 10 years ago. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan has opened a criminal probe, and House and Senate committees have pledged to hold hearings about GM and NHTSA's behavior.

GM is also facing pressure from safety advocates. On Wednesday, two U.S. consumer watchdog groups called on GM to establish a $1 billion fund to compensate victims of the company's faulty ignition switches.

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, in a letter to GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, complained that a combination of a statute of limitations and rules under which a reorganized GM operates could prevent victims from pursuing legal action against the automaker.

"By concealing the ignition key defect for at least 10 years, GM created more victims and then robbed them of their legal rights through the passage of time," wrote Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, and Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen.

GM spokesman Greg Martin did not rule out the possibility of a victims' fund, saying in a statement: "Our principle throughout this process has been to put the customer first and that will continue to guide us."

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, asked by Reuters whether he supports the creation of a victims' fund, responded: "I can't answer that out of the blind, but generally speaking I'm all for establishing funds taking care of people."

Rockefeller's panel is expected to hold hearings early next month on the GM recall and federal regulators' role.

Democratic Senator Patty Murray, who chairs a Senate appropriations panel with oversight of transportation funding, asked Foxx why it took almost a decade for GM to report safety problems and whether the government must do more to bring about a better industry performance.

Foxx said the administration was conducting an "aggressive investigation."

But early warning signals, years ago, did not point to the need for a full-blown government probe, Foxx said.

"Despite three crash investigations and other research, the data was inconclusive," he said. "It just didn't point to an investigation" by NHTSA initially.

The GM recalls cover car models of varying ages, including some nearly 10 years old.

In response to consumer complaints several years ago about unintended acceleration in some Toyota vehicles, the U.S. government toughened penalties for inadequate reporting by industry.

(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Bill Trott and Mohammad Zargham)

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Comments (4)
p19 wrote:
Typical of greedy GM. By ignoring the issue they wouldn’t have to spend the money for a fix, so they simply ignored the problem hoping it would go away. Massive find is in order.

Mar 13, 2014 3:24pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Trichiurus wrote:
This is how Detroit thanks the American public for bailing it out.

Mar 13, 2014 3:49pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
madmoe42 wrote:
GM Ignition Switch Safety Problem not limited to GM. Applies to Mercedes Benz,too. My 2006 Mercedes Benz, SL500 still has same problem. Total loss of power occurred 15-20 times. Most serious occurred on interstate in San Diego, at night, at 70 MPH on cruise control. Suddenly,all power lost. Nothing worked, engine,inside/outside lights, power windows,doors etc. Nothing worked. Scared me to death. Car slowed quickly, 70 MPH to 40 in a few seconds, in total darkness. Could have been killed by high speed traffic behind me. Disoriented,moved transmission from drive to neutral, with slow nudges of paddle shifter,limped to side of road, with trucks, cars, honking at me. Returned to dealership many times,once for 60 days, never fixed. Reported to NHTSA, March 8, 2013. Nothing done by NHTSA, except record complaint. Don’t drive car much now, car scares me. madmoe42dime@yahoo.com

Mar 13, 2014 6:40pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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