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WASHINGTON — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said today that General Motors has agreed to pay the maximum $35 million penalty for violating federal safety laws in Chevrolet Cobalt investigation into ignition switches.

The agency also said GM has agreed to take part in unprecedented oversight requirements as a result of findings from NHTSA's timeliness investigation into how the automaker handled the recall of 2.6 million cars with potentially defective ignition switches.

NHTSA, the agency also ordered GM to make significant and wide-ranging internal changes to its review of safety-related issues in the United States, and to improve its ability to take into account the possible consequences of potential safety-related defects.

GM will also pay additional civil penalties for failing to respond on time to the agency's document demands during NHTSA's investigation.

"Safety is our top priority, and today's announcement puts all manufacturers on notice that they will be held accountable if they fail to quickly report and address safety-related defects," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx said in a statement.

Foxx and David Friedman, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), are expected to provide more details during a press conference today in Washington D.C. at 11:15 a.m.

NHTSA launched what is known as a timeliness query after GM ordered recalls beginning in February for Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other similar vehicles. The investigation was intended to determine whether GM acted as quickly as it should have, given that there had been warning signals over many years regarding ignition switch defects in these cars.

More recalls: GM issues 5 new recalls for 2.7 million U.S. vehicles

The defect, which dealers are repairing now, has been linked to 13 deaths and 42 crashes to date. NHTSA has come under fire as well for not forcing a recall sooner, though Friedman told congressional investigators last month that his agency did not have enough information available to warrant a government-ordered recall.

He has said that if NHTSA had all the information it now knows GM had, it might have acted differently. Automakers can be fined up to $35 million for failing to act on safety defects in a timely

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GM documents submitted to NHTSA indicate that as early as 2001, it detected ignition switch problems in the Ion and several internal investigations were launched to determine why vehicles were shutting off. In 2006, the ignition switch was changed but no recall was ordered until this year.

GM says it wasn't until late last year and early this year that it linked ignition switch problems in the vehicles -- which can cause the key to be inadverently jostled out of position -- to other issues, such as the loss of power steering and power brakes, and air bags not deploying in the event of a crash.

Contact TODD SPANGLER at 703-854-8947 or attspangler@freepress.com.

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