DETROIT (USA TODAY/Detroit Free Press) - A Congressional committee will investigate General Motors' response to an ignition switch defect that is now linked to 13 deaths and 31 crashes.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the committee would examine why GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to act quickly when customers started reporting problems nearly a decade ago.
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The automaker has recalled 1.6 million small cars from the 2003 through 2007 model years - such as Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion - after acknowledging that the ignition could turn off unexpectedly, shutting off power to safety systems.
The Congressional investigation adds a fresh layer of scrutiny for the automaker just three months after it escaped government ownership and only two months after new CEO Mary Barra assumed the top job, seemingly free of major crises.
Upton was an author of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act, which was passed in 2000 after the Ford Firestone crisis. The TREAD Act allows for civil or criminal penalties against automakers that fail to respond efficiently to safety defects.
"Significant questions need to be answered," Upton said in a statement late Monday. "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."
NHTSA, which is facing questions over why it ignored consumer complaints about vehicles turning off on the road, has opened its own investigation into the GM defects.
Barra last week personally pledged to lead a team of executives to examine the situation, ordering an "unvarnished" report on what happened.
"We are fully cooperating with NHTSA and will do so with the Committee, too," GM spokesman Greg Martin said Monday night in statement. "We welcome the opportunity to help both parties have a full understanding of the facts."
Earlier Monday, GM said it has hired the lawyer who investigated the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers to examine its response to the defects.
By Nathan Borney, Detroit Free Press
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