General Motors acknowledged late Wednesday that it knew about a defective ignition switch back in 2001 but continued to build cars with the part for years.
Now 12 deaths are linked to the defect. GM is recalling more than one and a half million vehicles.
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, the recall was the first order of business in the Senate.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was asked why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, investigated problems with some of the GM cars in question, three times, but never demanded a fix.
"In this case, the three crash investigations that were done were inconclusive," Foxx said. "Now as we learn more information, we may learn that our process for reviewing situations such as this need to be improved."
In an updated letter filed with regulators, GM now says it knew about an issue with ignition switches in 2001, in Saturn Ions.
Yet a comparable ignition cylinder was put on Chevy Cobalts and other cars starting in 2004.
A service bulletin was issued to dealers in 2005 saying a heavy key ring, or jarring, can turn the engine off, which disables the airbags. NHTSA had access to that, but no recalls were ordered.
"There's been a complete failure of the recall system both on the part of General Motors and the federal government," said Clarence Ditlow, who runs the consumer watchdog group, the Center for Auto Safety. "And we absolutely have to fix that."
On Thursday, Ditlow sent a letter to NHTSA, and enclosed a chart. It shows the number of deaths, when airbags did not deploy, in Saturn Ions and Chevy Cobalts between 2003 and 2012 - as many as 47 in 2010.
Ditlow said that based on this chart the only way NHTSA could not see a defect trend is if it closed its eyes.
"The airbag is the last line of defense in a crash and it should never fail," he said.
In response NTSA said, "The data available to NHTSA at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend. New information provided by GM has prompted NHTSA to launch an aggressive investigation."
GM so far has acknowledged 12 fatalities linked to the defect, including, we've now learned, a Chevy Cobalt accident which killed a 13-year-old girl and her grandmother in Pennsylvania in 2009. A one-year-old boy was paralyzed from the waist down.