WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Americans may be driving unsafe vehicles without knowing it because federal safety investigations are taking longer than they should, consumer advocates say.
Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said a safety investigation into 2002-05 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers took 42 months and an investigation of 1999-2003 General Motors full-size pickups has gone on for 25 months -- well over the agency guideline of 12 months -- The New York Times reported Saturday.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said the NHTSA division that investigates defects and oversees recalls "is on a starvation diet," the newspaper reported.
The NHTSA budget of about $800 million includes $10.6 million for the Office of Defect Investigation, which has 28 investigating engineers on its payroll, two more than it had in 2001, the Times said.
NHTSA Director David Strickland noted the agency initiated 134 recalls in 2012, affecting 9 million vehicles.
"Clearly we are able to succeed in executing our mission and doing it very well with the staff on hand and the expertise that we have on hand," Strickland said.
Ditlow said NHTSA claims of success are exaggerated, since one investigation can trigger multiple recalls.
"The historic rule at NHTSA is one investigation, one recall," Ditlow said. "Anything else is recall inflation."
The Times said one investigation into Webasto sunroofs prompted 61 recalls in 2011, accounting for almost half of the 131 recalls the NHTSA reported for the year.