By one estimate, 303 people died after air bags failed to deploy in Cobalts and Ions, General Motors cars that were recalled last month over faulty ignition switches.
Documents show that GM began reviewing the switches as early as 2001. If a federal investigation reveals a criminal cover-up, someone should go to prison.
GM has recalled 1.6 million vehicles to correct the design defect. That action seems too little, too late. The automaker said the malfunctioning switches led to 12 deaths and 31 crashes in which front air bags did not inflate. But the Center for Auto Safety, a credible private watchdog group, commissioned a review of federal crash data that concluded the number of deaths may exceed 300.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation of whether GM failed to comply with laws that require timely disclosure of vehicle defects. GM executives must reveal what they know and face the repercussions for their failure to correct a defect they were aware of for more than a decade. So far, they have only apologized and ordered an internal review.
All of the investigations must be swift and focused on finding the truth, not casting blame. If laws have been broken, however, those who are responsible must be punished criminally, outside the scope of any civil settlements.