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Federal safety officials are reviewing potential airbag problems with Chevy Impala vehicles, impacting 320,000 of the sedans manufactured by General Motors (GM), which has already recalled more than 30 million vehicles this year for a variety of safety issues.
The Chevrolet Impala investigation (PDF) was announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on July 22, after receiving at least one report from an elderly couple that the front passenger air bag failed to deploy when they were involved in a frontal impact car crash. To date, GM has only been made aware of this one incident.
The vehicles in question are the 2008 Chevrolet Impala cars, which are equipped with an occupant classification system (OCS) software that recognizes the weight and presence of a passenger sitting in the seat, allowing the system to recognize the force to project the air bag without injury the passenger. The models in question may contain defective software that could prevent the OCS from recognizing an occupant in the seat, creating a heightened injury in a crash.
The Chevrolet Impala investigation was brought to the NHTSA’s attention when Donald Friedman of Xperts, LLC, petitioned to the agency to open a defect investigation concerning the OCS software logic and algorithm. Friedman, who has done independent research on the vehicles, claims the vehicles have a defect that causes inaccurate suppression of the front passenger airbags moments prior to a frontal impact/crash on 2004 through 2010 Impala models.
Friedman’s allegations were supported when an elderly couple both weighing roughly 170 pounds each were involved in a frontal crash while driving their 2008 Impala and the air bags failed to deploy on the passenger side due to the vehicle impacting and climbing up a median wall. When the vehicle began to run up the barrier wall, it lifted the passenger out of her seat and the airbag was not deployed due to OCS suppression.
The NHTSA investigation notice stated that the investigation is aimed at the 2008 Chevrolet Impala vehicles only at this time, which could affect an estimated 320,000 vehicles. However, GM has used a very similar type of OCS software in many different models dating back to 2003. If the investigation proves a safety risk exists in the vehicles a much larger and broader investigation by the NHTSA will be merited, possibly leading to another large GM recall.
GM has already had a record breaking year for recalls with 30 million total vehicles affected in the U.S. The company has also set aside $400 million to cover some of the settlement costs associated with accidents caused by defective ignition switches that may cause airbags to fail if the vehicles suddenly shut off. The automaker has acknowledged that at least 16 deaths and at least 60 other serious injuries may be linked to that defect.
Problems for GM surfaced this year when the ignition switch recall was issued in February, indicating that certain Chevy, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles may suddenly shut off if heavy key chains are used or if the ignition is jolted, such as may occur in an accident.
It has been discovered that General Motors was aware of the problem for decades, yet failed to issue a recall or address the defect. Amid intense scrutiny, the auto maker has issued a series of recalls this year, touching all major brands sold by the company, for various defects.
A growing number of GM recall lawsuits are now being pursued on behalf of individuals who suffered a personal injury or death in an accident, as well as claims brought by vehicle owners who have seen the value of their cars decline due to the safety problems.