US senators press Barra about GM’s delay in recall

Mary Barra

WASHINGTON (AP) — General Motors CEO Mary Barra underwent a second day of harsh questioning from Congress Wednesday, as lawmakers pressed her for answers about mistakes the company made in not recalling cars with defective ignition switch for a decade, linked to at least 13 deaths.

Members of a Senate consumer-protection subcommittee didn’t relent in harsh questioning of Barra, reminding her starkly of the people who died in accidents and demanding to know why she wasn’t aware of earlier company decisions on fixing the faulty switches.

As she began her testimony, Barra faced an angry and skeptical Sen. Claire McCaskill, the head of the subcommittee, who recounted the story of a woman who died in an accident involving a faulty switch.

McCaskill accused the company of “a culture of cover-up that allowed an engineer at General Motors to lie.” In 2006, GM replaced the faulty switch in small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and the Saturn Ion but didn’t change the part number. In a deposition for a lawsuit against GM, the engineer who OK’d the replacement denied knowing the part number hadn’t changed.

If the part number stayed the same, anyone investigating the cars wouldn’t know why earlier switches were failing at a higher rate than later ones.

On Tuesday, Barra tried to convey to a House committee that GM is now more focused on safety, saying mistakes made in the past wouldn’t happen at “today’s GM.”

But McCaskill said the new GM, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, had ample time to recall cars equipped with a faulty ignition switch that is linked to at least 13 deaths. GM began recalling the cars this February. A total of 2.6 million cars are involved, mainly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions made for model years 2003 to 2007.

“Even under the new GM banner, the company waited nine months to take action after being confronted with this egregious violation of public trust” McCaskill said.

In opening statements, Sen. John Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, said nothing has changed since the held hearings on Toyota’s unintended acceleration recalls four years ago.

“Once again, it seems an auto company that should be focused on building the safest fleet of vehicles disregarded a serious safety risk,” he said. “Once again, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found itself caught flat-footed, surprised by a recall that it, too, should have seen coming.”

The acting head of NHTSA, David Friedman, is also testifying at the hearing.

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