WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal safety regulators slapped General Motors with a record $35 million fine Friday for taking more than a decade to disclose an ignition-switch defect in millions of cars that has been linked to at least 13 deaths.
Under an agreement with the Transportation Department, GM admitted it was slow to inform regulators, promised to report problems faster and submitted to more in-depth government oversight of its safety operations.
The fine was the maximum the department can impose.
"Literally, silence can kill," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, adding: "GM did not act and did not alert us in a timely manner. What GM did was break the law."
Safety advocates said the fine, which is less than a day's revenue for GM, is too small to deter bad behavior by automakers.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said the Justice Department — which is conducting a parallel criminal investigation — should fine the company $1 billion or more and bring charges against GM engineers and their superiors.
"That's the only way you're going to change GM's behavior," he said.
Congress is also investigating GM, and the automaker faces hundreds of lawsuits over deaths and injuries attributed to the ignition switch.
The company has acknowledged knowing that the switches in its small cars had problems since at least 2001. But it was not until February that it began recalling 2.6 million of the cars, mainly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions.
Automakers are required by federal law to report safety defects to the government within five days of discovering them.
When jostled, the ignition switches can slip out of the "run" position and shut off the engine. That cuts off the power steering and brakes, potentially causing drivers to lose control. It also disables the air bags.
GM says at least 13 people have died in crashes linked to the problem. Lawyers suing the company say the death toll is at least 53.
The Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been criticized for failing to take action on the switches despite thousands of complaints from car owners, used a news conference to turn the tables on GM, detailing some of the most damning evidence against the automaker.
Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman said a 2009 memo from a parts supplier to GM stated that the switch problem could disable the cars' air bags. Had the government been told that at the time, it would have sought a recall, Friedman said.
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