Is your life worth 57 cents?
....apparently not to General Motors.
Members of Congress tore into GM management during a heated Capitol Hill hearing probing fatal car wrecks linked to a defective part, claiming people died because the auto giant failed to fix what amounted to a 57-cent problem.
"We know that GM made a series of terrible decisions, and we know that this tragedy has exposed significant gaps in federal law that allowed them to do so," Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said.
General Motors' new CEO, Mary Barra, and the head of the nation's auto safety watchdog testified Tuesday before a House subcommittee, on the defect in small cars that is linked to 13 deaths.
Fueling the outrage over the malfunction, DeGette said lawmakers obtained documents showing how GM had actually looked at possible fixes for the defect in 2005, but determined it would be too expensive to address.
The "unacceptable cost increase," she said, turned out to be 57 cents apiece.
The congresswoman held up an ignition switch for one of the cars and said a small spring inside of it failed to provide enough force, causing the car engines to turn off when they went over a bump. DeGette showed how easy it was for a light set of keys to move the ignition out of the "run" position. That can cause the engine to stall, and the driver loses power steering and power brakes.
Asked later in the hearing about the apparent decision not to address the problem, Barra said she found it "very disturbing."
"If that was the reason the decision was made, that is unacceptable -- that is not the way we do business at today's GM," she said.
Asked how the company balances cost and safety nowadays, she said: "We don't."
If there's a defect, Barra said, "we take action" without consideration for cost.
She also apologized to the millions affected by the ongoing recalls, and especially to those who lost family members and friends.
"I am deeply sorry," she said.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Barra said: "It angers me that we had a situation that took over a decade to clean up."
As lawmakers ripped both GM and federal regulators, family members whose loves ones were killed in auto accidents linked to the defect demanded answers, and accountability.
Calling the GM cars a "death trap," they said the company knew for years the vehicles were dangerous -- but their sons, daughters and relatives are dead "because they were a cost of doing business GM's style."
Ken Rimer, whose teenage stepdaughter was killed in a 2006 crash in Wisconsin, recalled how she died.
"What was to be a simple shopping excursion turned into a death trap as their vehicle, without any warning, lost power," he said. "The steering wheel lock, power breaks, no longer worked and the safety airbags were turned off. When all of this happened the car followed a path off the road, went airborne over an adjoining driveway, crushed a phone box, and tragically collided with a group of trees."
He added: "Would fixing the problem when it was discovered saved these two girls' lives and the lives of many others? Yes. Should GM be able to hide behind their bankruptcy and not accept the responsibility and liability of these young lives? No. Please help us in standing up for what is right. GM knew it was wrong. GM hid it during their bankruptcy proceedings. GM is liable for these young deaths."
In written testimony released ahead of the House subcommittee hearing, acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Friedman said GM had information connecting defective ignition switches to the non-deployment of air bags, but didn't share it until last month.
Committee members want both officials to explain why neither the company nor the safety agency moved to recall millions of small cars with a defective ignition switch, even though GM knew of the problem as early as 2001.
"Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took so long for a safety defect to be announced for (the small car) program, but I can tell you we will find out," Barra said.
GM has recalled 2.6 million cars for the faulty switch. That recall prompted GM to name a new safety chief and review its recall processes.
GM continued its efforts to show regulators and consumers that it is more focused on safety, announcing the recall of 1.5 million more vehicles on Monday for a power steering problem.
With Monday's recall, GM has now recalled 6.3 million vehicles since February. GM estimates the actions will cost it $750 million.
Laura Christian, birth mother of Amber Marie Rose, a teenager who died in a 2005 Maryland crash involving a Chevrolet Cobalt, said about 30 family members met with Barra and two GM attorneys Monday night.
All got a chance to tell their stories to GM's new CEO, but Christian said they got little reaction. "A lot of, `I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,' " Christian said.
GM would not comment on details of the meeting.
Congress also wants to know if it needs to strengthen a 2000 law intended to improve communication between automakers and the government.