Watch CBS News

Did federal regulators fail to flag complaints against GM?

The warnings are written in a stark plain text file maintained on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website.

"I'm just happy my family is alive," one driver wrote of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, after the car's engine suddenly went dead after driving over a small rock. "I don't think this is the first and last time this will happen, and hopefully a recall will take place before someone dies from this flaw."

Another complaint tells a harrowing story about a woman who was driving with her four-year-old son in a 2005 Cobalt when the car suddenly died on the highway. "She was able to coast off the highway, but was almost rear-ended by a larger vehicle that was following her," the complaint notes.

More than 260 complaints were made during the past 11 years about Cobalts and other General Motors cars that suddenly shut off while driving, or about two complaints per month, according to an analysis by The New York Times. With GM's recall of 1.6 million cars last month, the finger pointing has begun. While the NHTSA is investigating the "timeliness" of the recall, others are asking whether the government agency missed picking up on a trend hidden within its long ledger of complaints.

The NHTSA has been criticized before for missing patterns, with the agency coming under fire more than a decade ago for failing to flag problems with Ford Explorers with Firestone tires, The Times notes.

But the NHTSA is defending its track record when it comes to the GM cars, noting that there wasn't enough evidence to support an investigation. The 260 complaints represent only about 0.018 percent of all cars that have been recalled.

"Regarding the recent recall of certain GM vehicles, 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 in a statement emailed to CBS MoneyWatch.

The NHTSA said it uses "a number of tools and techniques to gather and analyze data and look for trends that warrant a vehicle safety investigation and possibly a recall." Customer complaints are only one source of information that the agency considers, as well as early warning data, crash investigations and industry-related websites, the agency said.

One thing is for certain: GM knew of the defect, which happens when a key chain is jostled and shuts off the ignition, as early as 2004. GM was aware of the problem with the debut of its 2005 Chevy Cobalt, but said in a chronology provided to the NHTSA that it decided to close an inquiry because of "lead time required, cost and effectiveness."

A former head of the NHTSA is asking the Department of Transportation to investigate into why the agency didn't demand a recall earlier, according to USA Today. Joan Claybrook, who is now an activist, said the agency "failed to carry out the law" by not requiring GM fix the problems earlier.

The finger-pointing probably isn't much consolation to the families and friends of those involved in the 31 crashes and 13 deaths linked to the defect. According to the complaints listed in the NHTSA's database, there may have been many more close calls.

"The car stalled once this morning and then completely shut down without warning," one woman wrote of her husband's 2005 Cobalt, which she noted had shut down while on the highway. "My husband thought he was going to die."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.