By one estimate, 303 people died after air bags failed to deploy in two models of General Motors cars that were recalled last month over faulty ignition switches.
Newly released documents show that GM began reviewing the switches as early as 2001. If a federal investigation reveals a criminal cover-up in the matter, someone will have to go to prison.
GM finally has recalled 1.6 million vehicles to correct the design defect. That action seems too little, too late. The Detroit automaker said the malfunctioning switches led to 12 deaths and 31 crashes in which front air bags did not inflate. But the Center for Auto Safety, a credible private watchdog group, commissioned a review of federal crash data that concluded the number of deaths may exceed 300.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation of whether GM failed to comply with federal laws that require timely disclosure of vehicle defects. The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold hearings. And GM officials must answer questions under oath from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington’s chief regulator of auto safety, or risk fines that could reach $35 million.
GM executives must stop dragging their feet, reveal what they know, and face the repercussions for their failure to correct a defect they knew about for more than a decade. How many company officials knew about the faulty switches? Was there a conscious desire to save money or face, or both, that motivated a disregard for human lives?
GM executives have apologized and ordered an internal review, led by a former federal prosecutor who also investigated the Lehman Brothers financial services firm, whose bankruptcy helped trigger the global Great Recession. GM likely will have to pay millions of dollars in lawsuits; for people who were seriously injured or lost loved ones, that may seem an inadequate penalty.
GM’s new chief executive, Mary Barra, said she had no knowledge of the switch problem before she initiated the recall. She vows GM will be accountable.
The highway safety administration could be on the hot seat as well. The regulatory agency reportedly knew about the ignition problem since 2007, but apparently did nothing to force GM to address the dangers. As late as last week, the agency insisted “the data available ... at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect that would warrant the agency opening a federal investigation.”
If regulators failed to hold GM to adequate safety standards, they are also culpable, and must be held to account.
All of the investigations of this deadly debacle must be swift, thorough, and focused on finding the truth, not casting blame. But if laws have been broken, those who are responsible must receive more than a slap on the wrist. And they must be punished criminally, outside the scope of any civil settlements.