DETROIT -- For years, the U.S. government's auto safety watchdog sent form letters to worried owners of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other General Motors small cars, saying it didn't have enough information about problems with unexpected stalling to establish a trend or open an investigation.
The data tell a different story.
An Associated Press review of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that over a nine-year period, 164 drivers reported that their 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts stalled without warning. That was far more than any of the car's competitors from the same model years, except for the Toyota Corolla, which was recalled after a government investigation in 2010.
Stalling was one sign of the ignition switch failure that led GM last month to recall 1.6 million Cobalts and other compact cars, including the Saturn Ion, Pontiac G5 and Chevrolet HHR. GM has linked the problem to at least 12 deaths and dozens of crashes. The company says the switch can slip out of the "run" position, which causes the engine to stall. This knocks out the power steering and power-assisted brakes, making the car harder to maneuver. Power to the device that activates the air bags is also cut off.
GM has recently acknowledged it knew the switch was defective at least a decade ago, and the government started receiving complaints about the 2005 Cobalt just months after it went on sale. House and Senate subcommittees have called the current heads of the automaker and NHTSA to testify on April 1-2 about why it took so long for owners to be told there was a potentially deadly defect in their cars.
Although the overall number of complaints represents only 0.02 percent of the nearly 625,000 Cobalts sold from 2005-2007 in the U.S., experts familiar with NHTSA say they were enough to warrant an investigation and recall. The Cobalt had about the same rate of complaints as the Corolla. And the agency knew of at least two fatalities in Cobalt crashes that involved a sudden stall when it first declined to investigate the cars in 2007.
Spotting trends in the tens of thousands of complaints NHTSA gets each year is a tough job, and this case may have been more complicated than most. The Cobalt had a litany of problems, including fuel leaks, and a power steering defect that the agency did investigate. GM may not have disclosed all the information it had on the switches. And the 2010 recall of millions of Toyotas for unintended acceleration claimed much of the government's attention.
But several experts say NHTSA should have pressed for a recall sooner.
"They're not connecting up the dots. That's the generous explanation," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, who has studied the government's auto safety agency for decades. "The not-so-generous is that they did connect the dots but they just didn't do anything."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department oversees auto safety, has asked for an internal investigation into the GM issue. In a letter calling for the probe, Foxx said he is unaware of information that NHTSA "failed to properly carry out its safety mission based on the data available to it and the processes followed."
The safety agency, in a statement provided to the AP, said that during the past seven years, its investigations have brought 929 recalls of more than 55 million vehicles. "Each potential recall investigation is unique and dependent on the data gathered in each case," it said.
Foxx has said that GM didn't give the government enough information on the defective switches. In papers submitted to the safety agency last month, GM says engineers proposed solutions to the problem in early 2005, but the company didn't take action, developments unknown to the safety agency at the time. But the AP analysis makes clear that even without that information, NHTSA had evidence in 2005 that the switches were a problem.
That summer, the agency hired a contractor to look into a July 29, 2005, crash in Maryland that killed 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose. The report concluded that the air bags of Rose's 2005 Cobalt did not inflate, and the ignition switch had moved from the run position to "accessory," which runs devices like the radio but not the engine. Alcohol and speed also were factors, the report said.
Rose's birth mother, Laura Christian, said that after the crash, she studied the government's complaint database and found multiple problems with engine stalling and power steering failures on other Cobalts. She tried to tell NHTSA, but the agency wasn't interested, she said.
"Basically, it was 'No, thank you,"' Christian said. "NHTSA should have known, based on the information I have seen, certainly in 2006."
On Thursday, David Friedman, the agency's acting administrator, told Christian that he was taking steps to improve NHTSA's information-gathering processes, Christian says. They met at the agency's offices.
Among the other evidence available to the agency:
-- In December 2005, General Motors sent the safety agency and its dealers a service bulletin telling them that drivers could inadvertently turn off the ignition switch with minimal effort in Cobalts from the 2005 and 2006 model years. Dealers were told about repairs and to tell drivers reporting engine shutdowns to remove unnecessary items from their key chains.
-- In October 2006, GM sent the agency and dealers another service bulletin, adding Cobalts from the 2007 model year.
-- In 2007, the government commissioned a report on a 2006 Wisconsin crash that killed two teenage girls and injured another. In that report, Indiana University's Transportation Research Center found that the ignition in the 2005 Cobalt was in the "accessory" position and the air bags failed to inflate. Investigators told the agency 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."
-- In 2007 and later in 2010, NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigations examined data on stalling incidents and air bag failures in GM cars. Yet the agency recently told House members it was unable to spot trends that were significant when compared with "peer vehicles" or the U.S. passenger car fleet, according to a letter released earlier this month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But Ditlow says comparisons with peers are less important than simply watching the numbers and taking action when they get too high.
"I don't believe in innocence by association, that if you can find someone as bad as me, then I get off," he said. "If you're 50 percent worse, 25 percent worse, what's the dividing line?"
The complaint tally for the top-selling small cars in the 2005-2007 model years was: Corolla, 228; Cobalt, 164; Honda Civic, 60; Ford Focus, 25; and the Mazda 3, 19.
The government opened an investigation into the Corolla in late 2009, which led to the 2010 recall of nearly 1.3 million cars to replace faulty engine control modules that could make the cars stall without warning.
The agency investigated the Toyota complaints even though there were no reports of deaths or injuries related to the stalls. By contrast, it had already learned about deadly crashes in the Cobalt.
The Wisconsin crash, which happened on a rural road at 7:55 p.m. Oct. 26, 2006, killed Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Rademaker, 15. The driver, Megan Phillips, then 17, was severely injured.
Margie Beskau, Rademaker's mother, blames NHTSA for not recalling the cars beforehand.
"You have all these reports on this car. They should have done their job," she said.
Phillips remembers little of the crash and still suffers from brain damage. She does recall that everything in the car shut down, according to her attorney, Robert Hilliard of Texas, who represents 12 people killed in GM cars when the air bags failed to inflate.
Hilliard says NHTSA doesn't have the cash, the staff or the legal resources to match the automakers.
"It's a poor watchdog of a very powerful industry," he said.
NHTSA says it screens around 40,000 complaints per year. There is no set number for starting an investigation, but it considers complaints, injuries and deaths, warranty data submitted by automakers and other factors.
Sometimes NHTSA acts quickly. For example, the agency investigated electric car maker Tesla Motors after just two reports of vehicle fires and no injuries. It ended the four-month investigation when Tesla decided to fortify the bottom of its cars. It also began investigating older model Porsche 911 sports cars for coolant leaks last year based on 10 complaints and no injuries. That probe was closed without finding a safety defect.
When the Cobalt ignition problems surfaced in 2005, the agency was still building its consumer complaint database, so the Cobalt stalling data could have been overlooked, says a person familiar with the agency, who asked not to be identified because of the Congressional investigation.
In 2000, Congress passed legislation that required automakers to give NHTSA more data, including data about injuries, deaths and consumer complaints. The agency was building the new system to sort through it all.
The person familiar with the agency also says the Cobalt's other defects could have been a distraction. For instance, the government prodded GM to recall more than 1 million Cobalts and other small cars in 2010 to replace power steering motors.
Sorting out the mechanical causes of a problem like stalling is difficult, particularly when it's not happening in every vehicle.
"When you have things that are this infrequent, it's difficult to find out what the cause is," said David Cole, the former chairman of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research and the son of a former GM president. "Something that happens in 10 percent of vehicles, you catch that right away. But one in 100,000 is really tough."
That's no comfort to victims or current Cobalt owners like Penny Brooks.
Brooks feels betrayed by GM and by the government. She bought a used 2005 Cobalt, with 40,000 miles on it, five years ago. Last year, her husband was driving about 60 mph when the engine suddenly stalled. They made it safely to the side of the road and took the car to a mechanic, who could find nothing wrong.
Since then, the car has stalled two more times when Brooks hit bumps in the road that caused the ignition to slip out of the run position. "Nobody should have to sit there and pray, 'Keep me safe until I get back home,"' said Brooks, a licensed cosmetologist from Kingsport, Tenn.
She filed a complaint on NHTSA's website last year and says she even wrote a letter to GM's then-CEO, Dan Akerson, but got no responses. After the recall was announced, Brooks took the car to a local dealer, who gave her a loaner to drive until the Cobalt is repaired.
"It's a criminal and immoral act to hide that kind of information for so long," she said. "I pray that nobody else dies because of these faulty cars."