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An automotive safety group claims that more than 300 people died in accidents where air bags failed to deploy in General Motors (GM) vehicles that have been recalled recently due to ignition problems.
On March 13, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) sent a letter (PDF) to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acting administrator David J. Friedman, indicating that a review of the NHTSA’s files found 303 deaths linked to recalled GM Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion vehicles. The group took the NHTSA to task for not initiating an investigation and recall years ago.
GM has come under fire since issuing an ignition switch recall for certain 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles, as well as 2003 Saturn Ions, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHRs, and 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models. The company has recalled a total of 1.6 million cars in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
According to the auto maker, the ignition switches could shut off if heavy keys were placed in them, or if they were jarred, which could happen during an accident. If the ignition is turned off, then the air bags will fail to deploy.
Recently released information seems to suggest that the company may have known about the potential problem for years without taking appropriate action, with some sources suggesting the company should have known there was a problem as far back as 2001, before any of the recalled models hit the road.
GM officials have admitted there was a lapse and apologized to consumers, but the auto maker now faces multiple investigations by the NHTSA, Congress, and the Department of Justice.
GM initially indicated that at least a dozen deaths may have been associated with the ignition problem, but the CAS report raises concerns that this may be a gross underestimate of the number of air bag failures that could have occurred when the ignition was suddenly switched off by the impact of an accident.
“Examination of NHTSA’s Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) reveals 303 deaths of front seat occupants in the recalled 2005-07 Cobalts and 2003-07 Ions where the airbag failed to deploy in non-rear impact crashes,” the letter states. “The search did not include the other five models recalled or the number of deaths without airbag deployment would have been higher.”
The review was commissioned by CAS and conducted by the Friedman Research Corporation, which analyzes vehicle safety data. The study did not attempt to determine the cause of the crashes. General Motors officials criticized the analysis, saying that conclusions cannot be inferred from the raw data.
CAS noted that the NHTSA has issued auto recalls following far fewer reports of problems, indicating that the air bag failures and reported deaths should have raised a “red flag” inside the agency.
“The FARS data clearly show front seat occupants were being killed in crashes where the airbags did not deploy as soon as the recalled vehicles hit the road, with three deaths in Saturn Ions during 2003 and 6 deaths in Chevrolet Cobalts in 2005. The number of front seat occupant deaths steadily climbed as more Cobalts and Ions were sold with 43 in 2009 and 47 in 2010 where the airbags did not deploy,” the CAS letter states. “NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers.”
GM Faces Numerous Investigations Over Recall Delay
The NHTSA announced that it has launched an investigation into the recall on March 4, and gave GM orders to turn over a massive amount of information by April 3.
Congress is also looking for answers. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of House Energy and Commerce committee members sent a letter to General Motors Company Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra (PDF) and a letter to acting NHTSA Administrator Friedman (PDF), calling for answers and ordering them to turn over documents linked to the recall in two weeks.
“The committee will examine whether GM knowingly allowed faulty and dangerous cars to remain on the road,” Representative Henry Waxman, the committee’s ranking member, said in a press release. “We will be assessing whether NHTSA has all the tools the agency needs to keep drivers safe.”
The Senate Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing on the GM recalls next month.
The U.S. attorney’s office in New York has also launched a criminal investigation against GM, according to a number of media sources. However, it is not the office’s practice to confirm or deny that such an investigation is underway and would only make an official announcement when and if it decides to bring charges.