DETROIT -- 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.
Ignition switches on older-model Chevrolet Cobalts and five other GM models can shift from the "run" position to "accessory" or "off" without warning, shutting off the engine and turning off power-assisted steering and brakes. The problem also can stop the front air bags from inflating in a crash. GM says 13 deaths and 31 crashes have been linked to the problem.
Upton says the committee will seek information from the automaker and hold a hearing in the coming weeks. A Senate subcommittee hearing also is possible.
Congress passed legislation in 2000 requiring automakers to report safety problems quickly to NHTSA. The laws came after an investigation into a series of Ford-Firestone tire problems.
Upton said in a statement that the committee wants to know if GM or the agency missed something that could have flagged the problems sooner.
"If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended," Upton said.
An Associated Press review of a NHTSA database found dozens of driver complaints about the problem, some as early as 2005. GM has admitted in documents filed with NHTSA that it knew of the problem in 2004.
NHTSA already has demanded information from GM about when it knew of the problem. The company could be fined up to $35 million if the agency finds it responded too slowly. Automakers are required to report safety problems to NHTSA within five days of learning about them.
GM, in a statement issued Monday night, said it is cooperating with NHTSA "and will do so with the committee, too. We welcome the opportunity to help both parties have a full understanding of the facts." GM already has admitted that its processes weren't effective enough when the problem first surfaced.
A spokesman for NHTSA said Tuesday morning that he was checking on a response.
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 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007).
Facts surrounding the recall are embarrassing for GM and could scare away consumers. Since leaving a painful bankruptcy in 2009, GM has cut bureaucracy, improved vehicle quality and is quicker to recall cars when problems occur. However, its admission that recall procedures were lacking 10 years ago shows how the old culture can still haunt the automaker.