GM, safety agency face Congress over recalls

WASHINGTON (AP) - The head of the nation’s auto safety watchdog is blaming General Motors for a failure to act sooner to warn consumers of a defect in small cars that is linked to 13 deaths.

For its part, GM continues its efforts to show regulators and consumers that it’s more focused on safety, announcing the recall of another 1.5 million vehicles worldwide on Monday because the electronic power-steering assist can suddenly stop working, making them harder to steer.

The new recall brings to 6.3 million the number of vehicles GM has recalled since February. The initial recall, now at 2.6 million small cars for an ignition switch defect, prompted the automaker to name a new safety chief and speed up the review of cases that might lead to recalls.

GM said it expects recall-related costs to total $750 million in the first quarter, including $300 million for the ignition switch recall.

Included in the new recall are:

  • Chevrolet Malibu from the 2004-2005 model years, plus some 2006, 2008 and 2009 model-year cars.
  • Chevrolet Malibu Maxx from the 2004-2005 model years, plus some 2006 model-year cars.
  • Chevrolet HHR from the 2009-2010 model years (non-turbocharged only).
  • Some Chevrolet Cobalts from the 2010 model year.
  • Some Saturn Auras from the 2008-2009 model years.
  • Saturn Ion from the 2004-2007 model years.
  • Pontiac G6 from the 2005 model year, plus some cars from the 2006, 2008 and 2009 model years.
  • Service parts installed into certain vehicles before May 31, 2010, under a previous recall

GM says no deaths related to the defect have been reported. It is still investigating whether there have been any accidents or injuries related to the problem.

GM dealers will replace the power steering motor and other parts for free. Spokesman Alan Adler said owners will be notified of the recall the week of April 28 and will be told when parts are available after that.

The Cobalt and the Ion, which are also involved in the ignition switch recall, share many common parts. GM recalled Cobalts from the 2005-2010 model years for the power steering defect in 2010, but it’s unclear why the company didn’t recall the Ion at the same time.

Federal regulators also opened an investigation into power steering complaints in the Ion in 2010, but didn’t order a recall.

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

Friedman’s testimony

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

Recalls continue for GM.

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.

Barra’s testimony

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.

That could test the patience of committee members, who will want to know immediately why GM failed to protect its customers in this case.

Congress also wants to know if it needs to strengthen a 2000 law intended to improve communication between automakers and the government.

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

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 canceled 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 canceled. 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.

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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