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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 is investigating electric car maker Tesla Motors after just two reports of vehicle fires and no injuries. 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.Next Page >
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