(June 17, 2014)

Leann Darrow has been waiting on her General Motors dealership for more than a month to get the defective ignition switch on her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt replaced. She has been nervous about driving the car, but as of last week, she was still waiting for an appointment to open.

"They told me they have over 150 vehicles on the waiting list and have received only five ignition switches," said Darrow, 53, of Pittsfield, Mass. "They were unable to tell me where I am on the waiting list … unbelievable."

Darrow is anxious to get her car fixed because it has lost power while she has been driving it on several occasions. "I am not in a big city; we are a little bit in the sticks. I won't take my car on any long-distance drives. I am really disgusted with GM."

Darrow's frustration illustrates how the recall system often falls short of a main goal: fixing vehicles quickly. About 3 in 4 ultimately get repaired, but it takes time. And for older vehicles, like the 2.6 million small cars that carry GM's defective switch, the repair percentage falls sharply.

Neither regulators nor companies can easily find people who are often the second or third owners of an older car.

More than 3.5 million cars are listed for sale online with open safety recalls, according to Carfax figures. "Right now, there are almost 36 million cars on the road that have an unfixed recall. About 10 percent of those were for sale online just last year alone," said spokesman Christopher Basso.

The decades-old recall system has drawn fire for years but is facing perhaps its most intense scrutiny. As GM car owners and dealerships wait for more new switches from a supplier, GM is scrambling to explain why it took more than 10 years to issue a recall that could have saved lives.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency in charge of recalls, is also under fire from Congress and safety advocates for not recognizing the problem years earlier and forcing a recall of the switches, now blamed for 13 deaths and at least 47 crashes.

Congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating, with criminal penalties possible. One legislative proposal, designed to give the system more teeth, would raise the maximum civil fine to $300 million from $35 million for an automaker's failure to inform the NHTSA of safety defects. Last month, the agency announced the maximum $35 million fine for GM.

Safety advocates say the agency needs more power and staff to police the massive industry and performance of 250 million vehicles on the nation's roads.

The agency has defended itself before two congressional committees, saying the problem would have been recognized sooner had GM been more forthcoming with vital information.

GM said it has overhauled its system for recognizing and acting on safety problems earlier, including creating an executive committee in charge of recalls and creating a new global safety chief. An independent internal investigation ordered by GM CEO Mary Barra released June 5 condemned the company for its decadelong failure to fix the deadly safety defect and led to the dismissal of 15 GM employees.

The current recall system is a shared responsibility between the traffic safety agency and automakers, which are expected to notify regulators and the public of safety issues and to initiate voluntary recalls. The safety agency also researches crashes and traffic data and can order recalls.

The system broke down with GM and the agency failing, together and each separately, to decide to recall defective switches that first showed problems in 2001. GM did not issue the first of several recalls for the switches until February. Safety advocates and members of Congress are demanding reform and more accountability.

Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said his panel's investigation into the recall could lead to changes in the safety agency's regulatory powers. "We know NHTSA did not identify the problem, but we don't fully know why," he said. "Right now, it is still too early to tell if and what changes need to be made."

Before several congressional committees this year, the NHTSA has said the burden is on automakers to monitor defects and report them within five business days if motorist safety is at risk.

Critics say the agency relies too much on auto companies to self-report problems. But the agency is dwarfed by the sprawling industry it regulates. With just 591 employees, it is responsible for overseeing the safety of all vehicles on the nation's roads.

The agency's Office of Defects Investigation, which reviews more than 45,000 complaints a year, has 51 people.

The agency also points out that its mission is more about promoting driver safety and less about policing safety defects. The agency said it gets more bang for its buck and saves more lives investing in safe driving campaigns, such as nationwide seat belt, anti-texting and anti-drunken-driving promotions. Regulators said they need the industry to self-report safety issues and to initiate its own safety recalls reliably for the system to work.

"The bottom line is that safety is a shared responsibility," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department oversees the agency. "There are some situations when automakers are in a better position than NHTSA to know information."

As for reaching out to owners of recalled GM cars, Jeff Boyer, its first-ever vice president of global vehicle safety, said, "We're exploring some new avenues on how we can get in better touch with those customers."

Alisa Priddle and Todd Spangler of the Detroit Free Press contributed.