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

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioned Thursday whether General Motors failed to follow federal law when it delayed informing regulators about an auto ignition switch that has been blamed for at least a dozen deaths.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), whose panel is investigating GM’s belated recall of 1.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars, said an auto-safety law passed in 2000 required the automaker to inform regulators about the problem within five business days or face as much as $35 million in civil penalties.

The law, called the TREAD Act, also makes it a crime to intentionally mislead the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration about defects that lead to serious accidents. The Justice Department recently hit Toyota with a $1.2 billion fine for violating the law.

What troubles me the most is that the TREAD Act was pretty specific: five days. You got a problem, it’s five days,” Upton, the law’s chief author, said in an interview. “It’s not five years; it is not 10 years.”

Upton’s remarks come as lawmakers prepare to grill GM chief executive Mary T. Barra, as well as officials with the highway safety agency, next week about their handling of the ignition-switch problem.

A history of GM’s ignition problems

According to documents GM has filed with NHTSA, the automaker first learned of problems with the switch in 2001, but failed to notify regulators until 2006, when engineers issued a service bulletin to dealers. Another eight years passed, before GM finally issued a recall in February.

Barra is scheduled to appear Tuesday before an investigations subcommittee of Upton’s panel, and on Wednesday before a consumer-safety subcommittee in the Senate.

The ignition switches have a tendency to turn off the engine when jostled, causing cars suddenly to stall and to disable critical electronic systems, including passenger air bags. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the senior Democrat on Energy and Commerce, echoed Upton’s concerns.

“The thing that is so amazing to me is that GM and NHTSA knew about these problems since at least 2004, and possibly earlier. They didn’t issue a recall and they didn’t make this information available to consumers,” Waxman said.

“We need to find out what happened. How were these unsafe cars allowed to remain on the road for so long?”

Waxman said Congress should consider beefing up reporting requirements for automakers and tougher civil penalties for violations of the TREAD act. He also called for additional funding to help NHTSA improve its ability to track the safety records of cars that increasingly rely on complex and sophisticated electronics.

The TREAD Act was adopted in 2000 after rollover crashes involving Ford Explorer SUVs equipped with Firestone tires were linked to 271 deaths. Congress acted again in 2010, holding hearings into Toyota’s recall of more than 5 million vehicles at risk of unintended acceleration. At the time, lawmakers proposed increasing NHTSA’s budget and making more information about potential safety problems available to the public. But many of those measures were never enacted.

Next week’s hearings mark “the third time in the past 15 years that Congress has addressed these types of problems,” Waxman said, with little improvement in the system.

“I don’t know whether that law, had it passed, would have made a difference,” Waxman said. “But [GM’s recall] underscores the need to make sure that NHTSA has all the tools it needs in terms of resources, expertise and manpower — and that there is more transparency, public information and accountability.”

GM has explained delays in reporting the ignition-switch flaw by saying that company engineers struggled for years to pinpoint the source of the problem. Barra, a longtime GM executive who took over as CEO earlier this year, has acknowledged that something went “terribly wrong” with the company’s safety oversight process and has repeatedly apologized.

Meanwhile, NHTSA says it, too, was aware of and concerned about the problem, and that it launched in-depth investigations into three crashes in which the faulty ignition switches seemed to play a role. But those investigations were stymied by a host of complicating factors, officials said, including the introduction of a new type of air bag that was suspected of causing the deployment failure.