WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Retired Wisconsin state trooper Keith Young and his wife were sitting at the kitchen table last month when a story on the evening news jarred them: General Motors Co was recalling 1.6 million vehicles for faulty ignition switches.
Young said the couple turned to each other immediately. "That's just like that crash over in St. Croix County in 2006," they said.
The October 2006 crash of a Chevy Cobalt stayed with Young, who spent 20 years as a specialist in accident reconstruction. The car, driven by 17-year-old Megan Ungar-Kerns, lurched and hit a telephone box and two trees. No airbags deployed, and her two passengers were killed. None was wearing a seatbelt.
Young sent a report to the U.S. vehicle safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with his finding that the ignition had been turned from "run" to the "accessory" position prior to the crash, shutting off the car's engine and disabling the airbags.
But NHTSA, which is responsible for keeping dangerous vehicles off the road, did not act until after the GM recall in February of this year, when the agency began investigating the timeliness of the automaker's handling of the safety defects.
The agency now finds itself under intense scrutiny for failing to spot a defect blamed for at least 12 deaths since 2005.
Consumer safety groups say NHTSA should have pressured GM to order a recall as early as 2007. The agency's acting chief, David Friedman, has been called to testify before a House of Representatives panel in April looking into whether NHTSA failed to heed warning signs. A Senate panel is also planning hearings.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose sprawling department oversees NHTSA, has defended the agency, saying data about the ignition switch from was "inconclusive".
"It just didn't point to an investigation" by NHTSA, he said, describing the broad probe that companies fear.
That evidence included two reports completed in 2006 and 2007 by outside investigators hired by NHTSA. The reports zeroed in, as Young had, on the ignition problem.
Both were the results of so-called Special Crash Investigations, which the agency initiates when it wants to take a deeper dive into accidents and their underlying causes, to help see if a wider NHTSA investigation is warranted.
After the 2006 Wisconsin crash, the Chevy Cobalt driven by Megan Ungar-Kerns, now Megan Phillips, was taken to an impound lot. Former state trooper Young met a NHTSA contractor from Indiana University and shared his findings. "I made them aware," he said.
The team from Indiana University searched NHTSA's own database in 2006 and found at least six consumer complaints of the ignition switch cutting off the engine. Their report included a service bulletin GM had sent to its dealers in October 2006 alerting them to the defective part.
"This investigation revealed that inadvertent contact with the ignition switch or a key chain in the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt can in fact result in engine shut-down and loss of power," the report said.
An earlier Special Crash Investigation report, begun in 2005 and completed in 2006 by Calspan Corp, focused on a July 2005 accident in Maryland that killed 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose, whose airbag failed to deploy after her Chevrolet Cobalt hit a tree at about 69 mph (111 kph).
Investigators said the ignition key was in the "accessory" position. Rose was not wearing a seat belt and was legally drunk at the time of the accident, according to the report.
Despite the two reports by outside investigators that drew similar conclusions, NHTSA did not move to open a formal investigation.
If NHTSA had taken that step, it might have put pressure on GM to consider a recall, said retired NHTSA attorney Allan Kam, who has been hired as an expert by a plaintiff's attorney in a lawsuit against GM. Kam said it would be "a fair criticism" to say the agency needs better internal coordination.
General Motors says it first learned about the ignition defect in 2001. The automaker says the weight of the key ring or jostling of the key can cause the ignition to shut off suddenly, and the company has apologized repeatedly for its slow response. It has launched an internal probe.
NHTSA said in a statement that in both Special Crash Investigations the results were inconclusive.
"In this case, the data available to NHTSA at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation," the agency said.
Transportation Secretary Foxx on Friday said "out of an abundance of caution" he had asked the department's inspector general to review whether NHTSA had properly investigated reports of ignition problems.
Some consumer groups say the conclusion is clear.
"They had more than enough information," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the independent Center for Auto Safety. "They could have issued a recall as early as 2007."
The center conducted a study analyzing all fatal accidents in 2003-2007 Saturn Ions and 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalts and found that in 303 front-end collisions, the airbag did not deploy. GM called the report "pure speculation."
With a staff of 600, NHTSA has struggled to uphold its mandate of policing auto manufacturers over dangerous defects at a time when advanced electronics make today's cars more complex, safety advocates say.
"The agency is certainly understaffed and outgunned," said Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research & Strategies Inc and a regular consultant to plaintiffs' lawyers. Still, Kane said he found the agency's actions in the GM case "hard to fathom" given the amount of information available to it.
NHTSA has faced criticism before for its oversight. It came under fire for waiting to open an investigation into blowouts of Firestone tires in Ford Explorers until 2000, about 10 years after initial reports of accidents. That controversy prompted Congress to pass the TREAD Act, which ordered manufacturers to report additional information on defects to NHTSA, much of which is not made public.
NHTSA has several databases it uses to find patterns in reports of defects. The Early Warning Reporting system draws from information supplied by manufacturers on deaths and injuries. The Fatal Accident Reporting System is based on police reports. Those tools, and the 40,000 complaints NHTSA receives each year, are used by the agency to spot a defect or enough of a pattern to warrant further investigation.
The tools also provided the data that the Center for Auto Safety used for some of its reports.
Even if NHTSA found the data inconclusive, others investigating crashes were suspicious.
Tennessee state trooper Michael Marvin immediately noticed something unusual when he was called to the scene of an accident on New Year's Eve 2009, and he looked inside a 2006 Chevy Cobalt that had hit a tree. Inside, he found the body of Hasaya Chansuthus, a 25-year-old woman who was killed upon impact with no airbags to cushion the blow.
"If you hit something head on like that - and it wasn't a really old car - the airbags should have deployed," Marvin said.
And a mechanic who earlier this year looked at a 2006 Chevy Cobalt owned by Walter Luba also noticed a problem. Luba, of Mount Morris, Illinois, had the car looked at after an incident in which it suddenly locked up, hitting a snow bank and flipping into oncoming traffic.
He escaped and survived. His neighbourhood mechanic later told him it was a power loss to the engine that caused his wheels to lock, and Luba has since confirmed his car was included in the recall.
For former state trooper Young, the evidence was there all along.
"I'm not here to critique their work. I'm here to do my job," Young said of federal regulators. "When I detected something that was a little unusual, I passed that information on, and it apparently took them 8 or 10 years."
( This corrected version of the story corrects description of Sean Kane to consultant from expert witness in paragraph 27)
Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert in Detroit, Marilyn Thompson in Washington; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Henderson