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U.S. Senate panel sets April 2 hearing on GM auto recalls

A worker walks behind a logo of General Motors after the announcement of the closing of the Opel assembly plant in Antwerp January 21, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

WASHINGTON/DETROIT (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel has scheduled a hearing for April 2 into how General Motors Co and federal regulators addressed concerns about malfunctioning GM ignition switches over the past decade, with vehicle recalls finally announced last month.

The Senate Commerce subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance said on Wednesday that it will hold the first in what could be several hearings on the faulty ignition switches, which have been linked to 12 deaths.

The U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the same topic on April 1.

GM's chief executive, Mary Barra, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's acting director, David Friedman, are expected to testify at both hearings.

In February, GM recalled 1.6 million vehicles over concerns that the switches could unexpectedly shut off engines and also make airbags inoperable in crashes.

GM first learned of the ignition switch problems in 2001 and in subsequent years consumers raised concerns repeatedly.

Congress wants to know why it took GM and the NHTSA so long to act since the problem first surfaced.

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who chairs the Senate panel, said in announcing the hearing, "We have to make sure federal regulators have the tools and information they need to prevent life-threatening tragedies for consumers."

Also on Wednesday, Barra directly spoke to consumers about the ignition problem for the first time in five videos posted on YouTube and on a GM blog. (See http://www.youtube.com/user/gmblogs/videos?flow=grid&view=0)

In the videos, which each last for less than a minute, Barra said the company is investigating how it failed to fix the defects sooner and that she will ensure that this type of problem never happens again at GM.

In one of the videos called "message to customers," Barra said: "We will learn from this and we will be a better company."

In a video addressing the delay in recalling the vehicles, she said: "Clearly the fact that it took over 10 years indicates that we have work to do to improve our process and we are dedicated to doing that."

Barra also reiterated in one video that a limited supply of replacement parts will be at car dealers by April 7 and parts for every vehicle affected by the recall will be at dealers no later than October.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington and Bernie Woodall in Detroit; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Leslie Adler and Matthew Lewis)