Lawmakers on Capitol Hill accused General Motors Co. of a potentially criminal cover-up over its defective ignition switches, and fumed at the lack of answers from the carmaker’s new CEO during a second day of hearings Wednesday into why GM waited a decade to recall cars with the deadly flaw.
Members of a Senate subcommittee also said GM should tell owners of the 2.6 million cars being recalled to stop driving them until they are repaired. But CEO Mary Barra gave assurances that the cars, mainly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, are safe to use while owners wait for the replacement part. Barra she would let her own son get behind the wheel if he took certain precautions.
GM has linked the switch to 13 deaths and dozens of accidents. Others sources, including relatives of some victims, have said they have a higher count of fatalities.
The automaker has said the ignition switch can move from the "run" position to the "accessory" position because of weight on the key chain. That causes the engine to shut off, disabling power steering, power brakes and the front air bags.
Barra largely defended the company again as she had done Tuesday, but lawmakers’ remarks became more heated in the second day of the hearing.
"You don't know anything about anything," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said. "If this is the new GM leadership, it's pretty lacking.”
Senators aggressively questioned Barra about how GM had approved a replacement switch in 2006 but never changed the part number. Failing to change the number makes the part harder to track. In this case, anyone investigating the cars would not know why earlier switches were failing at a higher rate than later ones.
While Barra called the failure to change the part number "unacceptable," several members of the panel implied that it was done intentionally by a person or group within the company.
"I don't see this as anything but criminal," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a former prosecutor.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is also a former prosecutor, told Barra that the more he learns about GM, "the more convinced I am that GM has a real exposure to criminal liability."
The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of GM's handling of the recall. Barra promised the company will cooperate.
GM not the only car company grappling with massive mechanical issues in its products.
On Wednesday, Chrysler LLC said it will recall nearly 870,000 SUVs because corrosion may make the vehicles' brakes harder to use.
Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs from the 2011 through 2014 model years are involved.
Chrysler said crimp joints in the brake boosters can corrode if they are exposed to water. If the water freezes, the boosters will not aid braking as they usually do.
Chrysler began investigating after some customers said their brakes felt too firm when pressed down. The company knows of one accident, but no injuries, due to the defect.
Dealers will install a shield to protect the boosters for free and replace boosters that are not working properly, the company said.
Chrysler has since changed the design to make the boosters more corrosion-resistant.