The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee will begin an investigation into whether General Motors failed to comply with federal laws over car recalls. The inquiry will look into the timeline of events in the wide-ranging ignition switch recall that has reportedly been linked to 31 car crashes and 13 deaths.
Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan) will lead the investigation, which seeks to uncover whether GM delayed acting on the ignition switch problem despite receiving reports of the fault for almost a decade. Upton, chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, previously oversaw the government investigation into rollover crashes of Ford Explorer SUVs fitted with Firestone tires. He subsequently sponsored the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act that provides strict guidelines and penalties if automakers fail to disclose a safety defect.
"Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?" Upton said in a statement. "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."
In an emailed statement, GM said, "We are fully cooperating with NHTSA and will do so with the Committee, too. We welcome the opportunity to help both parties have a full understanding of the facts."
GM first announced a recall of 619,122 cars for the ignition switch recall on February 13, and later expanded that to cover a total of 1.37 million U.S. cars. The defect means the ignition switch can inadvertently toggle to "Off" when the car is running, especially if the driver's keychain has heavy attachments. That can reduce the driver's control of the car. The ignition can also cycle off in an accident, disabling the airbags.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) already sent GM a 27-page document with questions over the timeline of the investigation into the ignition switch defect. Automotive News reports that GM has until April 4 to respond to the NHTSA inquiry, and could face a fine as high as $35 million if the government determines GM didn't appropriately investigate the problems.
Update: Bloomberg reports that the U.S. Justice Department will also investigate GM's handling of the ignition switch recall. Lawyers will reportedly investigate whether GM broke any laws requiring them to issue recalls for safety defects.