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Detroit - General Motors has named a 40-year engineer as its new safety chief, placing a single person in charge of recalls and other safety issues as it deals with a huge compact car recall that has damaged the company's reputation.
The move, announced Tuesday by CEO Mary Barra, comes after revelations that GM knew about a deadly ignition switch problem in 1.6 million compact cars at least 11 years ago, but failed to recall them until last month. The problem has been linked to more than a dozen deaths in the Chevrolet Cobalt and five other models.
Barra on Tuesday named engineer Jeff Boyer to the new global post. She says it gives GM a single safety leader with access to senior managers and the board. Boyer is responsible for development of safety systems, vehicle testing and safety of cars after they are sold, including recalls.
"If there are any obstacles in his way, Jeff has the authority to clear them," Barra said in a statement. "If he needs any additional resources, he will get them."
Two congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating GM's behavior in the ignition switch case. The company has admitted knowing as early as 2003 that the switches can shut down car engines unexpectedly and cause drivers to lose control. Despite multiple company investigations, the cars were not recalled until last month. In one of the investigations that didn't lead to a recall, GM failed to consider four fatal accidents in one of the models.
"Something went wrong with our process in this instance and terrible things happened," Barra said Monday in a video on GM's media website.
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later it added 842,000 Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). All of the recalled cars have the same ignition switches.
The company said the ignition switches can wear from heavy, dangling keys. If the key chains are bumped or people drive on rough surfaces, the switches can change suddenly from the "run" position to "accessory" or "off." That cuts off power-assisted steering and brakes and could cause drivers to lose control. The company is urging people not to put anything on their key rings until the switches are replaced.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra says it's likely she will testify before congressional committees investigating the company's handling of a faulty ignition switch that is tied to 12 deaths.
The CEO, who has spent her career with GM, also says she first found out about the switch problem in late December and had no knowledge of it before that.
Barra spoke to reporters Tuesday for the first time since the company recalled 1.6 million compact cars to repair the problem.
Barra apologized for the loss of life that occurred. GM has admitted knowing about the problem for at least a decade but failing to recall the cars until last month.