Transcript: Sen. Dean Heller’s opening statement on GM’s ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of opening remarks by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) on “Examining the GM Recall and NHTSA’s Defect Investigation Process”. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance’s hearing was held on April 2, 2014:

…I want to begin by offering my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who’ve been affected by these tragedies. Also want you to know we’ll get to the bottom of why it took so long to get these vehicles off the road.

As many of you know, General Motors has issued a recall of over 2.2 million vehicles due to problems with the ignition switches that GM has admitted to knowing about in some form as early as 2001.

These faulty ignition switches have linked to 13 deaths.

GM has now recalled certain years of Chevy Cobalts, Pontiac G5s, Saturn Ions, the Chevrolet HHR, the Pontiac Solstice, and the Saturn Sky.

Last Friday it was reported that sometime in 2006 or as late as 2007, General Motors changed the ignition switch part. A whole new part was manufactured and sold but GM kept the same part number for that new part.

Now, in my hometown of Carson City, we have an engineering company that builds pistons and rods for NASCAR teams. I’ve talked with him, talked with owners, talked with other builders in Nevada, and I can tell you this: If a company sold a part that was changed in any way and did not change the model number or the serial number on that part, it would cause significant problems for these businesses, these individuals, and of course the racing teams themselves.

Ms. Barra, you know that I have raced cars for years. I’ve used GM’s testing facilities on some of the cars that I have raced. I have broke engines, broke transmissions, broke rear-ends, lost my brakes, throttles stuck…And I tell you this because we break those engines down, those transmission…to find out exactly what the integrity of those parts are, how they broke, and why they broke, and the difference of course being is winning or losing.

I can tell you based on my experience, it is incredibly unusual for a car company to change car part and not change the part number.

Government investigators have now requested that GM provide any documents chronicling the switch change and who within the company provided it.

I’m also requesting today that GM provides this committee with that same information. But that’s only part of this issue.

We also need to recognize that when GM emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, the federal government owned 60% of the company because taxpayers bailed the company out. So GM knew of this issue in some capacity over 10 years ago. They changed a part but didn’t tell anyone. They asked for a taxpayer bailout, and the current administration had to step in and restructure the company. Through all of this, GM was unable to determine that they should pull 2.2 million vehicles off the road.

This is why from where I’m sitting GM has a lot of explaining to do both to this committee and to the taxpayers.

Here’s the issue for GM: It looks like there are multiple moments when the company faced conflicts of interests.

And you said it yourself yesterday, Ms. Barra, GM had a culture based on cost, not safety.

So many people are wondering: Did GM did not initiate a recall because GM could not survive one in 2006 or they did not initiate a recall because the government owned 60% of the company?

It is possible that GM has an explanation for why it took so long to pull these cars off the road. However, after yesterday’s hearing, I’m afraid we’re not going to get too many answers today.

I hope GM is in a position to speak to what happened more specifically. That is why we’ve called you here. And I think GM should take the opportunity today to explain her actions and help this committee get to the bottom of what happened.

There’s also another side to this story. This is whether the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration received all the information from early warning reports that it needed to determine if further investigations were warranted.

NHTSA received 260 complaints over 11 years and these vehicles were turning off while being driven. Yet NHTSA did not move forward with the recall investigation in 2007 or in 2010.

I wrote to NHTSA asking very simple questions regarding their process in recalling vehicles and what they saw in 2007 or 2010 that compelled them to pass on any investigation.

I’m very disappointed in NHTSA’s ability to respond to my letter in time for this hearing.

When we’re looking at incidents in which individuals died, I expect more from NHTSA than what they showed today and I think that NHTSA knows they can do better and they better do better.

That being said, it’s my understanding that the Secretary of Transportation has requested an internal investigation to conduct an audit of NHTSA’s handling of the GM recall.

Secretary Foxx also stated that he has directed NHTSA and the Department’s General Counsel to jointly conduct a due diligence review, and I’m pleased by both of these developments and look forward to the reports.

We need to ensure that consumers are safe on the road. We need to understand the facts of this recall. There are many questions that need answering, and I hope that today’s hearing begins to provide some answers to the U.S. taxpayers and to what they deserve.

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