U.S. considered, said no to GM air bag probe in '07

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WASHINGTON -- A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration manager recommended almost seven years ago investigating why air bags in some of General Motors's Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion cars weren't deploying, a memo issued by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee shows.

The chief of NHTSA's Defects Assessment Division emailed other officials in the Office of Defects Investigation in September 2007, saying owner complaints from 2005 and "early warning" data about warranty repairs and injuries justified a probe, according to the memo from the committee Sunday. Congress is investigating an ignition-switch defect that can lead to air bag failure and has been tied to 13 deaths.

"Notwithstanding GM's indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non- deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers," the official said, according to the memo issued before a committee hearing on vehicle defects.

NHTSA chose not to open a formal defect investigation in 2007 after reviewing the air bag data, according to an interview between current NHTSA officials and the House committee's staff. That decision and the recall of 2.6 million cars this year are set to be the main focus of hearings this week, in which Mary Barra, GM chief executive officer, and acting NHTSA administrator David Friedman will have to explain their handling of complaints of stalling cars and air bags that didn't deploy.

"Lives are at stake, and we will follow the facts where they take us as we work to pinpoint where the system failed," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Sunday in a statement.

Ms. Barra and Mr. Friedman are scheduled to appear before Mr. Upton's committee Tuesday, and a Senate committee Wednesday.

The ignition-switch defect in six GM models including the Cobalt and Ion has been linked to the deaths in at least 31 crashes. GM recalled about 1.6 million cars worldwide in February, and an additional 971,000 last week.

GM approved production of the ignition switch in 2002 even though testing showed torque in the part fell short of the company's original specifications, the part's supplier, Delphi Automotive, told House investigators.

In 2005, after months of studying ignition-switch failures noted by Cobalt customers, a GM project engineering manager canceled a proposed fix citing high tooling costs, piece prices and long lead times, according to internal company documents obtained by the House committee.

"None of the solutions presents an acceptable business case," according to a GM memorandum cited by the committee.

The congressional hearings present a test of leadership for Ms. Barra, who took over as GM's first female CEO Jan. 15 and said she first learned the details of the recall two weeks later. Ms. Barra and other top executives are trying to remake the image of the Detroit-based automaker after last year shedding the last vestiges of U.S. government ownership linked to its 2009 bankruptcy.

Ms. Barra has apologized for the slow response that resulted in deaths. GM has also hired an outside investigator to probe the delay and has created a vice president position in charge of global vehicle safety, as Ms. Barra has sought to shore up GM's image.

Mr. Upton has said he wants to know why regulations already in place didn't catch the GM problems sooner. Mr. Upton led the probe in 2000 over highway deaths linked to Firestone tires on Ford's Explorer sport utility vehicles.

Mr. Upton, 60, was the lead House author of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act. The 2000 law boosted communication between carmakers and the government and increased NHTSA's ability to collect data, with automakers required to report more potential threats such as defect claims or lawsuits, and recalls in other nations.

"The TREAD Act was supposed to keep folks safe and prevent this very situation," Mr. Upton said in the statement. "We now know the problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots."

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