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 US vehicle safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 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.
Feds say reports 'inconclusive'
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 111 km per hour. 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.