* Consumer groups seek $1 billion victims' fund
* Senator Murray asks why so long before government acted
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, March 13 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"
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
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