A Graco employee demonstrates how to clean and repair b... A Graco employee demonstrates how to clean and repair buckles at the center of a NHTSA investigation. (Photo: YouTube).
The federal agency charged with keeping motorists safe on U.S. roads is investigating whether child car-seat manufacturer Graco delayed in recalling millions of defective car seats.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Monday it had opened a timeliness query into the handling and reporting of a safety defect that made it difficult or impossible for parents to unlatch children from their car seats. Some parents resorted to calling 911 or cutting straps with scissors to free their children.

Graco and NHTSA have repeatedly clashed over the necessity of a recall for the seats, and the latest announcement underscores the ongoing tension between the regulator and manufacturer, owned by parent company Newell Rubbermaid.

The company first recalled 3.8 million seats because of the defect in February 2014, then added 400,000 more in March. Graco resisted NHTSA's call for more recalls until July, when it relented and recalled 1.9 million more seats with defective buckles. Collectively, the 6.1 million seats comprise the largest recall of children's car seats in U.S. history. Now NHTSA wants to know why the seats weren't recalled sooner.

"There is no excuse for delaying a recall to address any safety-related defect," said NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman. "If Graco delayed in protecting children and infants from this defect, we will hold them accountable."

In Congressional hearings earlier this year, NHTSA and Friedman were routinely criticized for the agency's inaction in probing defects involving General Motors ignition switches and Takata airbags. NHTSA has since opened investigations into the latter, and Monday's announcement is another sign the agency is growing more confident in using its enforcement authority.

Initially, Graco said the difficulty unlatching the buckle was a "customer satisfaction" problem, one that was not mechanical in nature, but a problem of customer "perception" and "frustration." In documents filed with NHTSA, the company said it had received 6,100 complaints over the problem, and NHTSA itself had received 192.

On Monday, Ashley Mowrey, a Graco spokesperson said, "We thoroughly analyzed all data related to the buckles and took the required actions to keep our consumers safe. We worked cooperatively with NHTSA throughout its investigation and will continue to do so moving forward."

The company was a named defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in California. Two-year-old Leiana Ramirez died in a 2011 car fire, during which her mother and bystanders said they could not free her from her car seat. A witness, Salvador Martinez, told the Los Angeles Times he suffered burns on his hands and arms while trying to remove the trapped girl from the car seat. A confidential settlement was reached in the case, and another Graco spokesperson said the company's product was not at fault.

Federal law requires manufacturers to report known safety defects to NHTSA within five business days. Should NHTSA find that Graco violated the law, the company would be subject to a penalty as high as $35 million.

"Any delays by a manufacturer in meeting their obligations to report safety issues with the urgency they deserve, especially those that impact the well-being of our children, erodes that trust and is absolutely unacceptable," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

In the video below, a Graco employee explains how to order replacement buckles and how to install them.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect Graco did not admit any fault in reaching a confidential settlement regarding the death of Leiana Ramirez. An earlier version of this story inadvertently left the company's position ambiguous.

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