The Center for Auto Safety, one of the nation's leading automotive safety organizations, wants to know why federal regulators failed to act even though they had knowledge of the ignition-switch problem since 2007.
In a letter sent this morning, Clarence Ditlow, the organization's president, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration not only failed to protect motorists, but charged it kept details of its preliminary inquiries secret and "effectively helped GM cover up this defect."
"While GM bears completely responsibility for failing to recall these vehicles by 2005, when it knew what the defect was and how to fix it, NHTSA has responsibility for failing to order a recall by early 2007," Ditlow wrote. "... People died and the agency shares responsibility for their deaths with GM."
Although documents show General Motors knew about the dangerous ignition switch problem in 2004, the company did not recall any vehicles until February, when GM announced it would recall more than 1.37 million vehicles, including certain models of the Chevrolet Cobalt and Chevrolet HHR, the Saturn Ion and Saturn Sky and Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Solstice.
So far, 13 deaths and 31 crashes have been attributed to the problem, in which the ignition switch inadvertently moves from the "run" to "accessory" position, and cuts power to both the engine and airbags.
Could the death toll grow? The Center for Auto Safety says NHTSA received at least 51 reports of death claims from GM via its Early Warning Reporting system between 2004 and 2012. Federal investigators sought more information in at least 29 of the 51 reports, including 17 records prior to a meeting in 2007.
On March 29 of that year, NHTSA investigators and GM representatives met to discuss a crash that killed a 16-year-old Maryland girl whose airbags did not deploy in a 2005 Cobalt.
Details from that meeting are unknown, but following it, NHTSA stopped seeking more information about similar crashes. Prior to 2007, NHTSA sent GM inquiries on 90 percent of crashes submitted to the Early Warning Report system; after 2007, the agency sought more information in only 38 percent of deadly cases, according to the Center for Auto Safety.
"Americans need NHTSA's Early Warning Reporting system to actually provide early warnings, instead of just a rear-view mirror look into what has already gone wrong," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Friday. "If NHTSA won't take action to greatly increase public disclosure of information related to potential safety defects, I will introduce legislation ensuring that it does so."
Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook echoed Markey's displeasure with the agency she used to lead. On Friday, she sent a letter to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation asking for an independent investigation into NHTSA's failure to require a recall.
"No one is evaluating why NHTSA failed to carry out the law," she said. "I am asking you to undertake a full evaluation of this failure, taking into consideration the overt secrecy the agency now imposes on most of its defect investigation work so that the public is deterred from pressing the agency to act."
Earlier this week, Claybrook called upon new General Motors CEO Mary Barra to send a recall notice to consumers that underscores the severity of the ignition-switch problem.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.