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Did GM violate law requiring it notify federal officials about defect in cars?

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office in New York have opened a criminal investigation of General Motors over its handling of an ignition switch defect linked to at least 12 deaths
Did GM violate federal law in failing to report defect? 02:14

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York have opened a criminal investigation of General Motors over the company's handling of an ignition switch defect that's been linked to at least 12 deaths.

One possible issue: Did GM violate a law that requires car makers to give the federal government timely notice of defects?

When Michigan Rep. Fred Upton authored the Tread Act 14 years ago, it was after certain Firestone tires on Ford Explorers caused accidents that killed nearly 300 people.

General Motors knew about a problem with ignition switches in Cobalts and other compact cars CBS News
The Tread Act gave manufacturers five days to report defects related to deaths and injuries to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They're called early warning reports.

"The law said five days, not five years, not 10 years, and we're going to find out why the law may not have worked the way that it was intended," Upton said.

GM recall: Justice Department opens investigation into delay 00:23

General Motors confirmed to CBS News Wednesday night that it knew about the ignition switch issue in 2001, three years before previously acknowledged.

In 2005, GM issued a service bulletin to its dealers warning of ignition switches that can turn to the off or accessory position if there's a heavy key ring, or if the key is bumped. Engines in the Cobalts and other compact cars shut off and airbags don't work.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration or NHTSA had access to that information in 2005.

No recalls until 2014. Twelve deaths and 31 crashes have been linked to the defect.

The question is: Why didn't GM and NHTSA alert consumers sooner?

Are more deaths linked to GM ignition switch defect? 03:36
Joan Claybrook is the former head of NHTSA.

"The rule at NHTSA for years has been if there's a critical component of the car that fails that is enough information to start a defect investigation and probably to require a recall," Claybrook said.

"In this case, that did not happen," she said.

GM sent a letter to owners this week saying even after recalled cars are fixed - those fixes start in April - drivers should keep as little as possible on their key ring.

There were no recalls until 2014 CBS News

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