Foxx: Federal fines led to additional GM recalls

Anne Wernikoff

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday that federal fines prompted General Motors to issue additional automobile recalls.

The Department of Transportation fined GM $35 million for allegedly delaying the recall of more than 2 million mid-2000s model cars that were found to have a dangerous ignition switch flaw.

GM since then has acknowledged a series of other problems that led to 8.2 million additional recalls this week. 

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Critics have accused the Transportation Department of poor oversight, but Foxx argued Tuesday the agency's fines forced GM to admit it had additional problems.

"The recall activity is actually emblematic of the enforcement work of our transportation department," he said during an event on Tuesday that was organized by the Christian Science Monitor.

"The fact that you're seeing this recall activity I think is part and parcel to the fact that we've issued the stiffest … penalty for lack of timeliness that we've ever levied," Foxx continued. "I would actually take the position that what's happened here is actually a result of an awareness that we're going to action if we see violations."

The initial GM recall involved cars that made between 2004 and 2010 that were found to abruptly shut off or have their airbags become disabled, when their ignition switches were touched by heavy items on drivers' key chains. The ignition switch flaw was linked to accidents that caused at least 13 deaths between 2005 and now.

GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) both faced sharp criticism from lawmakers when the recalls were first announced earlier this year for allowing the defective autos to remain on the road for more than a decade in some cases.

Foxx said Tuesday that the federal government's response this year was similar to the way it dealt with widespread brake problems with Toyota cars in 2009.

"Let's keep in mind that the time frame for which this issue should have come to light was exactly the same time and set of issues that gave rise to the concerns with Toyota," Foxx said. "We learned an awful lot as a department from the Toyota example. We're taking a lot at this situation to see what we can learn from it as well. 

"We'll continue trying to build a better mousetrap, but I don't think this was an issue of NHTSA wasn't looking at this," Foxx continued. "I think this was an issue of NHTSA didn't have all the information." 

DOT officials said at the time the GM penalties were issued in May that the fines were the maximum amount federal regulators were allowed to charge an auto company under current law.

Some lawmakers have pushed to remove the cap on the Transportation Department's ability to fine auto companies in cases that are similar to the GM incidents.

The White House signaled Tuesday that administration officials would "welcome" reforms to NHTSA and DOT that could help better prevent the type of mass recalls recently taken by General Motors.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest deliberately noted that the NHTSA was "an independent organization that's responsible for acting outside of any political influence to ensure that that very important responsibility they have is performed rigorously."

But Earnest said he had "high expectations for individuals who work in that administration" and that the safety of the American traveling public was a "top priority."

"If there are new ideas that the Department of Transportation or NHTSA has for trying to catch these problems sooner or more quickly before they pose a broader threat, we would certainly welcome those kinds of proposed reforms," Earnest said.

Still, it did not appear that the White House was seeking out particular reforms.

Earnest said the White House had "confidence in the efforts that were underway."

--Justin Sink contributed to this report, which was updated at 2:37 p.m.