As many as 303 people may have been killed in crashes involving General Motors (GM) vehicles with defective ignition switches, according to a study commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington D.C.-based consumer watchdog group. GM recalled around 1.6 million automobiles this week. The recall addresses a defect in the ignition switch that may allow the key to slip from the “run” position if the keychain is overweight or the vehicle hits a bump, stalling the engine and cutting off power to the steering, brakes, and airbags.
The Center for Auto Safety hired Friedman Research to analyze data from the federal auto Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a national database collecting auto crash records from throughout the country. Researchers combed the data for deaths in non-rear impact crashes involving airbag failure in two of the recalled models, 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-07 Saturn Ions.
The study’s findings starkly contrast with GM’s records linking the faulty ignition switches to 31 crashes and 12 deaths, but the FARS figures are considered to be “raw data” and it can’t be said conclusively at this time that the 303 crash deaths are linked to the ignition defect.
On Feb. 13, GM recalled about 780,000 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles. GM expanded the recall on Feb. 25 include to an additional 590,000 model-year 2003-07 Saturn Ion, Chevy HHR, Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Sky vehicles.
In a letter to David Friedman, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Center for Auto Safety says, “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 letter goes on to say that the number of front-seat occupant deaths in these cars continued to climb steadily as more and more of them were sold, noting that 43 deaths occurred in 2009 crashes involving failed airbag deployment and 47 in 2010.
The Center for Auto Safety demanded to know why NHTSA regulators failed to take action with the GM crash data in its possession. “NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers.”