published Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Barra apologizes for deaths tied to recalled cars

  • photo
    The logo for General Motors decorates the entrance at the site of a GM information technology center in Roswell, Ga. A congressional committee is investigating the way General Motors and a federal safety agency handled a deadly ignition switch problem in compact cars. 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.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

DETROIT — The top executive of General Motors apologized for deaths linked to the delayed recall of 1.6 million small cars, saying the company took too long to bring the cars in for repairs.

CEO Mary Barra, who is in her third month leading the company, also named a new global safety director to help prevent further recall problems.

In her first meeting with reporters since last month's recall, Barra stopped short of saying the company would compensate families of those killed in crashes caused by faulty ignition switches. But she said GM would do what's right for customers after it completes an internal investigation.

"I am very sorry for the loss of life that occurred, and we will take every step to make sure this never happens again," she said.

Tuesday's 50-minute meeting with reporters was part of Barra's damage control effort as she tries to distance the GM from the pre-bankruptcy company that buried the problem in bureaucracy. GM has admitted knowing about the problem switches for at least 11 years, yet it failed to recall the cars until last month. The company also has promised an "unvarnished" investigation and a new dedication to safety.

GM has to protect its safety reputation to keep sales from falling and cutting into earnings. The company has been profitable for 16 straight quarters since emerging from bankruptcy protection in 2009.

Barra said no one at GM has been fired or disciplined because of the recall delays, but Mark Reuss, the company's product development chief who also spoke with reporters, said appointing a safety chief is only the beginning.

"This is the first change of things that need to change," Reuss said.

During the meeting, Barra and Reuss appeared composed. But they often refused to answer questions, saying they wanted to wait for the results of the investigation by an outside attorney before giving details.

Barra said GM is looking through its database for more crash deaths that could be tied to the ignition switch problem. That number is likely to rise above the 12 currently cited by the company as GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration review accident reports and consumer complaints.

Barra said it's also likely she will testify before two congressional committees investigating the company's handling of the problem, probably in early April. The Justice Department also is investigating whether any laws were broken in the way GM handled the recall.

Before the meeting with reporters, GM named a veteran company engineer, Jeff Boyer, as its new safety chief, placing a single person in charge of recalls and other safety issues.

Reuss called Boyer a "safety zealot" and Barra said she has known him since the 1980s. "He will have no qualms if he has an issue or concern, of raising that forward," she said.

On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later it added 842,000 Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). All of the recalled cars have the same ignition switches.

The company said the ignition switches can wear from heavy, dangling keys. If the key chains are bumped or people drive on rough surfaces, the switches can suddenly change from the "run" position to "accessory" or "off." That cuts off power-assisted steering and brakes and could cause drivers to lose control. Also, the air bags may not inflate in a crash and protect the driver and passengers.

GM is urging people not to put anything on their key rings until the switches are replaced.

Barra said she expects all the cars to be repaired by sometime in October.

Shares of General Motors Co. rose 46 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $35.09 in afternoon trading Tuesday. Its shares had fallen almost 2 percent since the February recall announcement.

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