General Motors is already facing a potential $35 million fine over the timing of the recall of 1.4 million Cobalts and other cars from the federal agency that regulates them. Now Congress is getting in on the action too.
Automotive News reports the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold hearings on the ignition switch issue with the Cobalt and other models now linked to 13 fatalities. The Senate Commerce Committee will also hold hearings on the matter.
Under certain situations the switch can turn off mid-driving, disabling the car's airbags. Lawsuit depositions have shown GM was aware of the problem in 2004 and 2005 but did not order a recall until now.
Committee chairman U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, said the timing of what GM knew and when will be the focus of the hearings.
Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner? If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended. Americans deserve to have the peace of mind that they are safe behind the wheel. We plan to seek detailed information from both NHTSA and GM and will hold a hearing in the coming weeks.
The exact date of the hearings has not been set. Automakers are legally required to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days if they notice a safety problem with a vehicle.
GM said they will cooperate with both Congress and NHTSA, and is in the process of responding to a 107-question query from the agency related to the timing of the recall.
But as The Detroit News notes, NHTSA could face some Congressional ire in these hearings as well, especially since reports have surfaced that the agency had some 260 complaints from owners over the years related to shutdowns but did not instigate a recall. (It's not clear how many of those shutdowns were ignition switch-related.) From their story:
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the committee that oversees the auto industry, said, "Repeated failure to detect and stop this potentially lethal defect shows that federal safety watchdogs need a wake-up. Even as more than 260 complaints were made about GM cars dangerously turning off, NHTSA inexplicably failed to spot a trend that apparently caused at least 13 deaths and eventually required massive safety recalls."
"An investigation is clearly warranted to establish why the safety watchdogs failed to act," he said. "The focus on federal regulatory inaction does not excuse GM for apparently failing to protect its consumers from fatal known defects — and it should be held accountable."
Looks like everyone's in hot water over this one now.