On Jun. 12, 2009, a 19 year-old, soon-to-be South Carolina University freshman named Sarah Trautwein lost control of her 2005 Chevy Cobalt, which veered right, then swerved back left head-on into a tree, killing her instantly. Almost five years later, Sarah's mother Rene stood before the U.S. Capitol Tuesday alongside about 20 other friends and family members of those injured or killed in crashes associated with an ignition defect in several General Motors models that shut down power to the car and disabled the air bags.
"Now I have to relive this, and I have to think about her final seconds on this earth, and the panic that she felt," says Trautwein, who found concrete evidence on Friday that the air bags did not employ properly in her daughter's car. "That's very painful."
The outdoor press conference took place hours before General Motors GM Mary Barra was due to testify before a congressional panel investigating why the company did not fix the defect for ten years, and why the government's auto safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, failed to "connect the dots" about the life-threatening issue years ago.
Sens. Edward Markey (D—Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D—Conn.) will push for a legislative fix that would require auto manufacturers to submit an accident report to NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting database any time their vehicle or equipment was implicated in a fatality. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce committee that will host today's hearing, will introduce a bill in the House based on failed 2010 legislation that would boost the enforcement authorities of the NHTSA. But he said GM ought to go further to help those who lost loved ones in crashes linked to the defects.
"I think that the victims need to be compensated," said Waxman. "I don't think GM ought to stand behind the statue of limitations or any other legal technicality—I think they have an obligation...to correct the problem and compensate people who deserve it."
Barra, who was named GM's CEO in mid-January, is expected to apologize to those close to the 13 victims killed in crashes linked to the defect, as well as show what steps GM is taking to counteract the crisis. "This latest round of recalls demonstrates just how serious we are about the way we will do things at the new GM," Barra will say before the House panel Tuesday, according to an advance copy of her opening statement released by the company. "We identified these issues. We brought them forward and we are fixing them. I have asked our team to keep stressing the system at GM and work with one thing in mind—our customers and their safety are at the center of everything we do."
But those who have felt the effect of the company's flaws first hand aren't likely to find solace. Trautwein met with Barra for an hour at a company office Monday night, along with other victims' families. "I don't feel that it was worth the time, to be honest," said Trautwein, who believes that the GM employees responsible should go to jail. "'I'm sorry' doesn't help us at this point...I think by the tenth or whatever parent it was, we asked her to stop saying sorry."
"I think they are murderers," she adds. "They've hidden this."