A consumer group has charged the federal government with dragging its feet in a two-year-old investigation into certain Ford Motor Co. automobile transmissions that jump from park into reverse.

"The longer the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration delays, the more people will die from this defect," said the Center for Auto Safety in a stinging letter to NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook. "At least nine people have died since NHTSA opened its investigation (two years ago)."

In all, the Center claimed, 30 people have died and 300 people have been injured nationwide because of the alleged defect.

The Center first contacted NHTSA with a request for an investigation into the matter on July 6, 1977.The agency almost immediately opened an investigation, but it wasn't until a year later that it issued a consumer advisory about possible problems. At that point, NHTSA official said an agency finding on the investigation would come "shortly."

According to the Center, six of the nine most recent deaths came after that NHTSA advisory was issued.

"NHTSA's failure to carry out its responsibility under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act to protect the public makes the agency legally responsible along with Ford for recent accident victims," Center Director Clarence Ditlow wrote.

NHTSA's Claybrook said the investigation has been slow "because of the huge number - 9 million - of cars involved. We have to have this case completely glued together before we move. We are anxious to hear from the public about these problems."

Meanwhile, it was also learned that a key part of the delay was the fact that NHTSA had to scrap two different contractors who failed to do adequate data analysis on this case, and is now using a third.