General Motors gambled, and Amber Marie Rose lost.

So did at least a dozen other people, many of them young women, all of them victims of fatal crashes involving Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars made by GM.

As much as three years before the Cobalt's introduction in 2004, the automaker discovered a faulty ignition switch that can cause the car to shut off, disabling the power steering, power brakes and air bags.

Repairing the defect takes about an hour and, according to some reports, the replacement part costs less than $1. Yet a GM executive rejected a proposal to fix the switch in 2005. Evidently, it was more cost effective to quietly settle lawsuits. Crash victims were collateral damage for a company struggling, unsuccessfully, to avoid bankruptcy.

GM waited more than a decade to initiate a recall that now extends to 2.6 million vehicles. But GM isn't alone in its reckless disregard for its customers. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration failed, too.

Despite accident reports, consumer complaints and a recommendation from a top staff member, the watchdog agency twice opted against opening an investigation of GM.

Rose's mother investigated, finding that a disproportionate number of victims were teenagers — her daughter was 16 when she was killed in 2005 — or young women. Because of their inexperience behind the wheel, safety experts say, these drivers may have been especially vulnerable when their cars unexpectedly lost power.

GM is in crisis mode: expressing remorse, pledging accountability, hiring a lawyer specializing in disaster payouts.

"Mistakes were made in the past," GM chief executive Mary Barra told the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week. "We will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future."

Congress can help Barra keep her promise. First, it must demand answers from NHTSA officials about their failure to pursue complaints about the Cobalt and other GM cars. Consumer groups say the agency is too cozy with the auto industry.

"They now refer to the auto companies as 'their customers,'" Clarence Ditow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told CNBC recently. "The American public is their customer. They regulate the auto industry."

Changing that attitude is a start, but Congress also must address its failure to provide adequate financial and legal resources for the task.

In 2010, Congress rejected legislation to boost funding for auto safety investigations. And while automakers must report safety defects to the NHTSA, there isn't a criminal penalty for failure to comply.

Moreover, much of the information held by the NHTSA isn't subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, leaving people such as Laura Christian, Rose's mother, to rely on media reports and Facebook posts for information about auto safety defects.

Automakers would be required to report fatal accidents, and the NHTSA would be allowed to provide more information to the public, under legislation proposed by Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Their bill won't help Amber Marie Rose, but it might save someone else's daughter.