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Apology by new CEO is a good start, but swift corrective action is necessary

Following the delayed recall of 1.6 million compact cars by General Motors Co., it has fallen to new Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra to quell public anxiety. So far, she’s doing a fair job.

But that should not absolve the automaker of the need to come clean following revelations of complaints dating back to 2001 that a faulty ignition switch on some models could stop the engine while a vehicle was in motion. That disables the power steering, leading to loss of control, and turns off the airbags.

The recall was announced last month, years after customers started complaining that the automobiles could switch off if bumped or driven with a heavy key chain.

Barra, barely two months into the job, has become increasingly, although reluctantly, more visible. She is learning a difficult lesson that usually comes much later in a top executive’s tenure that in a crisis it is wise to address the public directly.

She spoke to the media for the first time the other day, apologizing for the “loss of life” and said there will be “no sacred cows” in the investigation.

“I want to start by saying again how sorry I am personally and how sorry General Motors is for what has happened,” Barra said. “Clearly lives have been lost and families are affected, and that is very serious. We just want to extend our deep condolences for everyone’s losses.”

She noted that it “took too long” to recall cars that stalled and killed 12 people. Her appointment of a new safety chief to ensure defects get a more timely resolution was another reassuring move.

That’s a start in reassuring the public about GM products, but Barra and her top executives are still not being completely open. She declined to answer why the recall was delayed so long and where in the chain of command the decisions were made.

Barra has said that those questions will be answered by the company’s internal investigation into the matter. Two congressional committees, federal safety regulators and the Justice Department are also looking into the matter.

The Justice Department probe may be troubling GM the most. In a landmark settlement Wednesday, Toyota has agreed to pay a $1.2 billion penalty for deceiving regulators about a safety defect that caused sudden acceleration.

That settlement is a welcome sign of a new government activism in cases where deliberate decisions by a company endanger the public.

Barra said that GM has not contacted families of those killed in its cars, but said that it may do so after concluding its internal investigation, which may take a few months. Difficult as it will be, she should follow through and make it a priority to contact, personally, those families.

CEOs have had to apologize in the past. In this case, the loss of lives makes taking responsibility and following through with corrective actions that much more important.