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article imageCrash victim families press GM, Barra set to testify

By Michael Mathes (AFP)     Apr 1, 2014 in Business

Relatives of car crash victims and lawmakers demanded accountability from embattled US automaker GM Tuesday as its CEO prepared to face Congress, amid claims that a $2 fix could have saved lives.

Chief executive Mary Barra will likely get a grilling over why General Motors ignored an ignition switch defect for a decade despite numerous accident reports and 13 deaths.

Also before lawmakers will be the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the US auto safety agency under attack for not acting on its own evidence that the ignitions posed dangerous risks to drivers.

Heaping pressure on the automaker, weeping relatives marched up Capitol Hill, clutching images of their loved ones, to tell how their sons and daughters died in vehicles they said GM knew were faulty.

"We are the people left behind when a loved one got into what was supposed to be a safe car, a GM car -- a car that GM knew for years was dangerous and defective," said one of those relatives, Laura Christian.

Christian's biological daughter Amber Marie Rose, 16, was killed in 2005 when the airbags of her Chevrolet Cobalt did not deploy in a crash -- possibly due to a faulty ignition.

"Our daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, wives and husbands are gone because they were a cost of doing business, GM-style," she said.

The Barra hearing is the first in what is likely to be a mounting pile of legal troubles for the US auto giant, including a Justice Department probe and lawsuits from people injured and families of those who died in crashes allegedly tied to the ignition issue.

Analysts have already speculated that the trouble could cost the company billions of dollars in penalties and damages, on top of huge costs of the recalls themselves.

Mary Barra  CEO of General Motors  shown in Germany January 27  2014  will face tough questioning in...
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, shown in Germany January 27, 2014, will face tough questioning in Congress on Tuesday over why the company ignored a faulty ignition problem for a decade despite numerous accident reports and 13 deaths
Daniel Roland, AFP/File

Lawmakers argued the tragedies could have been avoided if GM acted swiftly to fix a serious but inexpensive problem.

"Two dollars. That's how little this ignition switch could have cost to repair," said Senator Ed Markey.

"But that was apparently $2 too much for General Motors."

- GM pledges full transparency -

In prepared testimony to the investigations panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Barra, a lifetime GM employee, said she still does not know why it took years for the automaker to act on the problem. But she pledged to find out.

"More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program. Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program," Barra said in her prepared remarks.

"When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators and with our customers."

She said management would be "fully accountable" and that GM would "do the right thing," though what that entails is not clear.

Legally, GM's 2008-2009 rescue by the government and bankruptcy reorganization could protect it from liabilities before that.

Such a possibility has angered lawmakers like Senator Richard Blumenthal, who said GM "gamed the justice system to obtain... broad and blanket immunity from liability for the lethal defects that it concealed."

"Today we have to correct that situation."

Since February, GM has recalled 2.4 million cars covering model years 2005-2010 over the faulty ignitions, which can abruptly switch into "accessory" or "off" position while in drive, especially when the car is jolted.

That can turn off the car's electrical systems, including its safety airbags, preventing them from inflating in a collision.

GM says it has evidence of more than 30 accidents in which the airbags did not inflate, with the ignition apparently the problem, and 13 deaths as a consequence.

GM's own documentation shows it was first aware of a problem in 2001 when the cars involved were in pre-production.

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