WASHINGTON (USA TODAY)-- Congressional investigators get their chance Tuesday to publicly question General Motors CEO Mary Barra and the nation's top auto safety regulator on why apparently glaring signals over the years failed to prompt an earlier recall of potentially deadly cars.
That recall of 2.2 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar vehicles finally came in the last two months when GM linked a defect in ignition switches dating back to models more than a decade old to air bags not deploying in the event of a crash. GM has linked 13 deaths to the defect.
But David Friedman, acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is set to tell the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that GM could have and should have provided NHTSA with relevant data far earlier that could have set in motion a recall before now.
"(It) would have better informed the agency's prior reviews of air bag non-deployment in GM vehicles and likely would have changed NHTSA's approach," Friedman said in written testimony. His agency is under fire for not following through with proposed investigations in 2007 and 2010.
The exposure for GM -- its resurgent post-bankruptcy reputation and profitability at risk -- and for Barra is far greater. Lawyers are beginning to line up to file class actions and liability suits, testing whether GM's bankruptcy shied from pre-2009 claims will hold.
On Monday night, Barra met with the families of several people who died in crashes involving the recalled vehicles. According to people there, she cried at one point, as families showed her pictures of those who died and told their stories.
One of the people there, Laura Gipe Christian whose 16-year-old daughter died in a Cobalt crash in 2005, said she wanted to meet with Barra, "so she could not turn away from the human side of this." She said Barra said she was sorry many times during the meeting at GM's Washington offices.
But while Barra -- less than three months on the job as CEO -- is expected to face tough questions from members of Congress about why GM didn't act sooner, with problems linked to ignition switches indicated as far back as 2001, she is not expected to provide many answers.
In her written testimony, released Monday, Barra promised full transparency and described GM's efforts to get at the truth but had little to offer by way of explanation.
"More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program," she said in the testimony. "Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out."
For Tuesday's hearing -- and Wednesday's before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection -- Barra will be expected to stirke a contrite pose while explaining both to Congress and the families of people who died in the recalled vehicles how a company like GM could have missed the red flags.
Families of people who lost loved ones in crashes are holding a news conference this morning outside the Capitol in advance of the 2 p.m. ET House subcommittee hearing. Several Democratic members of the House and Senate are expected as well.
In recent days, concerns that GM and NHTSA missed warnings that should have prompted an earlier recall have grown. House committee staff, meeting with officials of Delphi, the Troy-based company that produced the ignition switches, said suppliers told them in a briefing that GM accepted the part in 2002 even though it did not meet GM's own specifications.
NHTSA, despite receiving hundreds of complaints and considering a possible pattern of air bag non-deployment in 2007, failed to act as well, though in his prepared testimony Friedman said the cars were not "overrepresented" among other models in terms of air bag problems and that the data "did not indicate a safety defect or defect trend that would warrant .. a formal investigation."
GM's recalls in the first three months of the year haven't been limited to the ignition switches. On Monday, it recalled 1.5 million more vehicles for a power steering defect, bringing the worldwide total to 7 million vehicles.