Business Autos

GM victims' families, lawmakers blast recall delay, want tougher law

WASHINGTON -- Families of victims of fatal crashes of General Motors Co. cars with faulty ignition switches on Tuesday sharply criticized the automaker for delays in recalling the vehicles and called for legislation to prevent a repeat.

About two dozen family members gathered in front of the Capitol building to make their case before GM Chief Executive Mary Barra and David Friedman, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, were scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing about the recall delay. 

The families were joined by four Democratic lawmakers who want to toughen laws governing the disclosure of auto defects after GM waited years to recall vehicles after learning of the ignition-switch problem.

The switch, which unintentionally can turn off the vehicle and disable its airbags, has been linked to 13 fatal accidents. GM has recalled about 2.6 million vehicles globally since February to fix the part.

"I feel that GM needs to be held accountable to the public for the deadly and tragic consequences allowing these deadly switches to be used," said Terry DiBattista of Conway, S.C., whose daughter Amber Marie Rose was killed in a 2005 accident after the airbags in her Chevrolet Cobalt did not open.

"It is my sincere hope that there will be changes made to the law in order to prevent other families from experiencing our tragedy," DiBattista said, wearing a T-shirt with her daughter's picture and the words "GM Recall Survivors Protect Our Children."

"It is clear that GM is only concerned with their bottom line and not the safety of our loved ones," she said.

The families met with Barra on Monday night at the company's Washington office after requesting she sit down with them.

Barra, who took over as chief executive in January, told them she couldn't change what happened but was looking into why it took so long to recall the vehicles, said Ken Rimer, of Hammond, Wis.

His daughter, Natasha Weigel, died from injuries sustained in a 2006 crash in a Cobalt.

Rimer said he and his wife, Jayne, wanted to meet Barra so she could put their faces to the accident. Barra appeared moved by the families' stories, he said.

"When you hear the tragedy of all these poor kids who are not with us any more, it did bring a tear to her eye," Rimer said in an interview after Tuesday's news conference.

Because the accident happened before GM was restructured in a 2009 government-led bankruptcy, the new company is not liable. Rimer said that's wrong.

"We want GM to take ownership of this. Whether it's old GM or new GM, to us it's still GM," he said. "They're fixing the parts but that doesn't fix the hearts."

The four Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), are pushing legislation to make more vehicle safety information available to the public and to increase penalties for automakers who fail to act quickly to fix defects.

"We now know that the difference between this switch and one that would have worked properly was life or death," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), holding up a 2007 Cobalt ignition switch. "And do you know the other difference? $2....That's how little this ignition switch could have cost to repair."

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