NYT: Feds Didn't Act On 260 Complaints Of GM Cars Shutting Down

The latest development in the controversy over a defect in General Motors tied to 13 deaths isn't aimed at the automaker, but at the federal agency that regulates them.

A New York Times investigation says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received more than 260 complaints over 11 years of GM vehicles that suddenly turned off while being driven, but did not investigate the problem.

More than 1.4 million GM cars will soon be under recall over a problem with the ignition switch that causes the vehicle to shut off in certain conditions and also disables the airbags; 13 fatal crashes have been linked to the problem by GM themselves.

The Times story also says that since 2003 GM has reported at least 78 deaths and 1,581 injuries involving their six recalled cars, though it isn't clear how many of those deaths are linked to the ignition switch problem.

The Times combed through 8,000 complaints about the recalled models in NHTSA's public database and found more than 260 related to a moving car stalling unexpectedly.

It's not clear from their story, however, how many of those stalls are related to the ignition problem.

The complaints cited include "frightening scenes in which moving cars suddenly stalled at high speeds, on highways, in the middle of city traffic, and while crossing railroad tracks." The most recent complaint was filed Thursday.

"When the vehicle shuts down, it gives no warning, it just does it," wrote one driver of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. "I drive my car to and from work praying that it won't shut down on me while on the freeway."

Another driver wrote of the same model: "Engine stops while driving — cannot steer nor brake so controlling the car to a safe stop is very dangerous."

The agency responded with formulaic letters to people who filed the complaints, the Times reports. The newspaper spoke to one owner who said she never got a response after complaining her daughter's 2005 Cobalt shut down three times in normal driving.

NHTSA responded to the newspaper by saying they have recalled more than 55 million cars in the last seven years, and that while they use a variety of methods to search through complaints, "260 complaints amounts to about .018 percent of the vehicles under recall." But Carter-era agency director Joan Claybrook criticized NHTSA in the Times story, saying they do not have trend-spotting methods under control.

In doing our own coverage of the GM recalls, I've been genuinely surprised at the number of Jalopnik commenters who have chimed in to say they owned the cars covered under this recall and experienced shutdowns themselves. It seems pretty clear by now that this is a real problem, and now NHTSA may not escape criticism of it either.

Check out the full Times story here.