WASHINGTON -- After a series of blistering statements from lawmakers Tuesday, General Motors’ chief executive, Mary T. Barra, expressed deep remorse at a House hearing for the automaker’s decade-long failure to recall defective vehicles linked to 13 deaths.
But Barra offered scant new information in her opening remarks about how and why GM repeatedly failed to fix faulty ignition switches on Chevrolet Cobalts and other compact cars, despite conducting multiple internal studies of the problem since 2001.
"I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out," she said, adding, "I am deeply sorry."
In her testimony, Barra was expected to make news by announcing that GM had hired a global safety director. She did that, but she also said GM had hired Kenneth R. Feinberg, a lawyer who specializes in apportioning restitution payments in major disasters.
Her appearance before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee represented a significant new phase in the company’s crisis since it issued recalls that began in February for 2.6 million Cobalts and other vehicles.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said: "What we have here is a failure to communicate and the results were deadly.
Members of Congress and the families of people killed in GM cars are urging Barra to declare the cars unsafe to drive until new ignition switches are installed. So far, GM has said the vehicles are safe to operate as long as there are no objects attached to the ignition key.
And GM is coming under increasing pressure from lawmakers to establish a fund to compensate victims of accidents in recalled models.
The chairman of the House committee, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the hearing was the first step in discovering why GM did not recall flawed vehicles sooner, and why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not formally investigate the possibility of defects after reports of fatal accidents.
Besides the congressional inquiry, the company’s actions are under investigation by NHTSA and the Justice Department. In addition, several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the families of accident victims.