Rep. Upton: Why didn’t rules catch GM problem?

File photo of U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton. R-Mich., whose panel is holding hearings on the GM recall on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton has a pretty straightforward goal heading into Tuesday’s hearing on General Motors’ recall of 1.6 million cars.

He wants to know why the regulations in place didn’t catch the problems earlier.

Upton, after all, was the prime sponsor of the legislation that back in 2000 required the U.S. Department of Transportation to write regulations standardizing reporting of fatal crashes and other information to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Those regulations are in place: The question now is whether they are strong enough — or being applied effectively enough — to catch potentially deadly defects as early as they should.

“We were very surprised with the revelations that came forward the last couple of weeks,” Upton, R-Mich, said Thursday. “We’ll see where it takes us. … We’re going to see what the time line really was. Who tried to connect the dots and why they weren’t connected.”.

In a way, Tuesday’s hearing by the House Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee marks a return full circle for the genial, unaffected Upton, who was that subcommitee’s chairman in 2000 when it investigated the failure of Firestone tires that were linked to some 270 deaths and 700 injuries, mostly in Ford vehicles.

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Out of those investigations came the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. It was supposed to ensure that automakers gave regulators the safety information they needed in a timely manner and that the regulators put it to good use.

But in the GM recall case, there are indications that the company knew about potential ignition problems all the way back to 2001. And federal regulators had conducted several investigations but never pushed the company to recall the vehicles, in which GM now says the ignition switch potentially can be jostled out of the “run” position, shutting off the engine and disabling the airbags.

There also had been hundreds of complaints about the switches over the years. GM has linked the defect to 12 deaths and 31 crashes.

Upton, now the full committee chairman, was on his way home to the southwestern Michigan district he’s represented since 1987 on Thursday and said he’d spend the weekend going over with staff what more than 5,000 pages of documents supplied by GM on the recall condition tells investigators.

Even more was expected from NHTSA in advance of Tuesday’s hearing, where GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA’s Acting Administration, David Friedman, are scheduled to testify. Upton couldn’t say whether there would be more hearings or not — or whether other GM officials or regulators could be called to testify — but he wasn’t ruling it out either.

“I don’t know what the response is going to be. Those questions are going to get asked on Tuesday,” he said. “We don’t have any predisposed conclusions on where this is going.”.

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“Everything,” he said, “is on the table. We’re going to find out the answers as we should.”.

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