GM appoints vehicle-safety chief

More than 300 deaths are associated with General Motors recalls, according to a new study by the Center for Auto Safety. (Reuters)

With General Motors under intense scrutiny for failing to repair a defect the automaker has linked to 12 deaths, chief executive Mary T. Barra appointed a top executive Tuesday to oversee global vehicle safety.

Barra said the new executive vice president, 40-year GM employee Jeffrey Boyer, will be in charge of new-car safety as well as all safety recalls. She said the new post “elevates and integrates our safety process under a single leader so we can set a new standard for customer safety with more rigorous accountability.”

Barra, speaking Tuesday to reporters at the company’s headquarters overlooking the Detroit River, said the appointment is one of several steps that GM is taking to tighten its oversight of vehicle safety.

“We want to make sure this problem never happens again,” Barra said.

The appointment comes during an unfolding scandal over GM’s failure to fix ignition switches that if jostled or weighted with too many keys could cause cars to stall, disabling their air bags. So far, the problem has been officially linked by the company to 31 accidents and 12 deaths. Last month, the automaker recalled 1.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and five other vehicle models.

A history of GM’s ignition problems

GM has told safety regulators that it fielded complaints about the problem as early as 2001. But the company said it could not pinpoint the problem and did not issue a recall until last month.

The Boyer appointment comes a day after the automaker announced three more recalls, unrelated to the faulty ignition switch.

The long inaction on the ignition switch has made the company the focus of investigations by two congressional committees and federal safety regulators. The company is also the subject of a preliminary inquiry by federal prosecutors who are considering a criminal investigation, according to people familiar with the matter.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the congressional panels preparing for hearings, met Tuesday with GM officials, mainly to review the automaker’s version of events, as laid out in chronologies filed with federal regulators, company officials said. Barra said that she would testify if summoned by Congress to Capitol Hill.

Barra has named a former federal prosecutor to lead an internal investigation that could stretch over months to establish a more precise record of “what went wrong and why,” Barra said. “There are no sacred cows,” she said.

Barra was noncommittal when asked whether she would waive the immunity GM enjoys from liability claims predating its 2009 bankruptcy and federal bailout. The internal investigation will provide GM with a baseline of facts to guide the company as it moves forward, she said.

Vehicle safety advocates have called on GM, whose profits have soared and standing with car buyers has improved since a restructuring, to establish a $1 billion fund to compensate the families of those killed and injured in incidents related to the defective part.

GM has paid settlements in several lawsuits over the switch, but it has not released a comprehensive list of such lawsuits or a list of names of those it believes were hurt and killed as a result of the defect.

In her remarks to reporters, Barra repeated her apology for the problem and promised to work diligently to resolve it. She also said that repairs resulting from the ignition switch recall should begin by mid-April and be completed by October.

The debacle has posed a difficult early test for Barra, who took over as chief executive of GM in January. She said that she first learned of the problem when the company decided in late January that a recall was warranted.

Since then, she has pledged GM’s cooperation with the investigations and apologized repeatedly for the deaths and injuries related to the defective ignition switches.

“This is a big crisis, and it is going to go on for a while,” said Dan Hill, president of Ervin Hill Strategy, a crisis public relations firm. “They are going to be fighting battles on many fronts. But GM is taking it seriously. They are showing contrition, and the CEO is engaged.”

Barra said she is confident that the recalled cars are safe to drive as long as drivers remove all other items from the vehicles’ key rings. She said that if owners are uncomfortable driving the recalled models, dealers will provide them with loaners and rentals. She also reiterated GM’s pledge to reimburse dealers for the cost of providing those cars.

The models recalled by GM because of the ignition switch problem are: 2005-07 Cobalts and Pontiac G5s; 2003-07 Saturn Ion compacts; and 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs, Pontiac Solstices and Saturn Skys.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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