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Critics question strength of auto recall process

Things were supposed to change a decade ago to make the auto recall process more transparent, make automakers more accountable and make vehicles safer for the driving public.

As the General Motors recall on vehicles equipped with faulty ignitions blamed for at least 12 deaths shows, automakers have still found ways to do an end run around the process, leading to congressional hearings, criminal investigations and a rising mistrust among consumers for automakers and regulators alike, experts said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood arrives for a news conference where he announced findings from a 10-month-long National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study into unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles at the Transportation Department on Feb. 8, 2011.Getty Images

Critics are questioning why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the public's auto safety watchdog, let GM sidestep a recall for the ignition switch issues even though the first reports of trouble were sounded as early as 2001.

(Read more: Lawsuit says GM hid ignition defect)

"Here we are … faced with accidents and tragedies, and significant questions need to be answered," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican. "Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner? If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended."

Plenty of skeptics

After an estimated 270 people were killed in rollover accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs and Firestone tires, 6.5 million tires were called in August 2000, and Congress passed the so-called TREAD Act months later. Short for the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, it was intended to create a new process by which manufacturers had to reveal known safety-related issues, while encouraging motorists to report their own complaints.

Federal safety regulators and automotive industry officials alike insist the new process is working. The agency itself, in a statement on its website, noted that the tally has been increasing.

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"Over the last three years, NHTSA's defect and compliance investigations and compliance testing have resulted in over 430 recalls involving 22 million vehicles and products," the website says.

There are plenty of skeptics, though, all the more so since recent revelations that GM may have known for more than a decade that many of its compact cars were equipped with faulty ignition switches that could inadvertently shut off the vehicles and disable their airbag systems—a problem that last month led to the recall of 1.6 million vehicles.

What some are dubbing "Switch-gate" has already spawned a series of investigations, including hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill, a preliminary Justice Department criminal probe, a query by the NHTSA, and an internal investigation at GM ordered by the maker's new CEO, Mary Barra.

The well-publicized scandal was clearly on Barra's mind as, on Monday, the maker announced another three recalls—covering 1.5 million cars, trucks and crossovers—for a series of potential problems, including a possible fire hazard with the Cadillac XTS luxury sedan.

The latest move "underscores the focus we're putting on the safety and peace of mind of our customers," declared Barra, who has to explain why GM not only long-delayed a recall for the defective ignition switches but scrubbed plans that could have replaced them years ago. Going forward, she promised "today's GM" would redouble its effort to spot potential safety problems and resolve them quickly.

More from The Detroit Bureau:
US Justice Dept. launches investigation of GM switch recall
Average American can no longer afford average-price vehicles
Bankruptcy could once again save GM from switch recall lawsuits

On Tuesday, GM hired a new vehicle safety leader, Jeff Boyer, to identify and resolve safety issues.

Still, convincing the public of its resolve might not be easy, especially for a company still trying to recover from the image hit it took coming out of a 2009 bankruptcy only with the help of a massive federal bailout. But GM is by no means the only maker that has had to overcome concerns about its commitment to safety.

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