The chief of the biggest U.S. automaker, General Motors, has apologized to the relatives of 13 people killed in car crashes after her company failed for a decade to disclose a defect in ignition switches that led to the accidents.
Chief executive Mary Barra offered her apology at a congressional hearing in Washington Tuesday. It came after the recent company recall of 2.6 million vehicles it produced from 2005-2010 to fix the problem.
"Today's GM will do the right thing," she said. "That begins with my sincere apology to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry."
Barra, recently named as the GM chief, said she has no idea why it took the company until recently to disclose the ignition switch defect. She pledged to find out why and be "fully transparent" with the information.
The GM chief executive and the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Friedman, were called before the congressional committee to explain why the company and the government agency pushed aside complaints that the faulty ignition systems shut down cars while they were being driven. That in turn disabled the vehicles' electrical systems and prevented airbags from inflating in crashes.
GM's own data on the defect provided to the government shows that it knew of the problem as early as 2001.
In his prepared statement, Friedman said GM had information about the faulty ignition switches but did not disclose it to the government until last month. Drivers, however, had complained to the agency about the ignition problems as early as 2005 and it had information about a fatal accident. Government investigators decided a trend was not evident.
In recent weeks, GM, the second biggest automaker in the world behind Japan's Toyota Motor, has recalled 6.3 million vehicles -- the 2.6 million vehicles in connection with the faulty ignition switches, and another 3.7 million vehicles linked to other safety issues.
Relatives of the victims killed in the crashes held up pictures of their loved ones at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol. They condemned GM and the government for ignoring their complaints about the faulty ignition switches.
One victim's mother, Laura Christian, said GM put profits ahead of safety.
"Corporate executives made a decision that fighting a problem was cheaper and easier than fixing a problem," she said.