Ever since General Motors recalled 1.6 million of its cars globally over a decade-old defect that could cut off engines and deactivate airbags in a crash, the automaker has been pointedly contrite. After all, its slow response may have cost some people their lives.
So why have U.S. regulators been so silent about their own response?
In the 10 years that some of GM's cars were on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never started an investigation into the defect. That is despite the fact that under U.S. law, automakers have to submit "early warning" reports to NHTSA about potential problems, and GM was seeing warning signs as far back as 2004.
And it's despite the fact that during a March 2007 meeting, agency officials mentioned a fatal crash involving the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, according to a chronology GM submitted to regulators.
The victim from that July 29, 2005, crash was 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose, who struck a tree in Dentsville, Md., going 69 mph in a 25 mph zone, The New York Times reported.
She was legally drunk at the time, but there were also other factors at work: The car's ignition switch had moved out of the "run" position, so the airbags did not deploy, according to an investigator hired by the family.
In the coming months, if GM delivers on its promise to take an "unflinching" look at what went wrong, we will get a better understanding of why it took GM more than eight years to recall the Cobalt and several other models from that time period. But the government, too, will have some tough questions to answer.
NHTSA is supposed to be the people's auto safety watchdog. Why didn't it bark?
So far, at least, the agency isn't giving much of an explanation of what went wrong. Rather than apologizing, as GM did, the agency is essentially saying that it did its best.
"NHTSA constantly monitors a variety of available data and when the agency finds a trend that indicates a vehicle may be an outlier, we take action," an agency spokesman said in a statement. "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."
In fairness, the agency gets more than 40,000 consumer complaints every year. Over the past seven years, its defect investigations have led to 929 recalls affecting more than 55 million cars. So this is hardly a toothless agency.
But critics looking at the long wait on the GM ignition switch are wondering whether it's a sign that federal laws governing auto safety aren't working.