According to the AP this morning, a congressional committee is investigating the way General Motors and a federal safety agency handled a deadly ignition switch problem in compact cars. According to the AP:
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a large number of complaints about the problem during the past decade. But GM didn't recall the 1.6 million cars worldwide until last month.
Upton says the committee will seek information from the automaker and hold a hearing in the coming weeks. A Senate subcommittee hearing also is possible.
Thirty-one crashes and thirteen deaths have been attributed to the defect. If this weren’t bad enough, CBS Evening News reported that GM knew about these problems with ignition switches a decade before it announced a recall. Congress passed legislation in 2000 requiring automakers to report safety problems quickly to NHTSA (within five days, in this case). The laws came after an investigation into a series of Ford-Firestone tire problems.
According to Reuters, GM has hired two law firms to lead an internal probe.
This is not the first time the U.S. House has turned an investigatory eye on manufacturing. In 2010, The House Committee on Energy and Commerce and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations launched an investigation into the recall of 28 million boxes of Corn Pops, Honey Smacks, Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks cereals produced by Kellogg Co.
The investigation centered on the food company’s policies and procedures as they related to public health — in this case, requesting documents illustrating how it made its cereal and what precautions it was taking to keep 2-methylnapthalene out of its products and packaging.
Famously, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also examined J&J in 2010, assessing whether the company used a “phantom recall” to remove Motrin packages from shelves without alerting regulators.
In GM’s case, ignition switches on older-model Chevrolet Cobalts and five other GM models can shift from the "run" position to "accessory" or "off" without warning, shutting off the engine and turning off power-assisted steering and brakes. The problem also can stop the front air bags from inflating in a crash.