Both General Motors (GM) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have said that despite receiving numerous reports and complaints of the ignition switch defect that turned about 1.6 million U.S. cars into potential deathtraps, it was not easy to spot a trend in the data. No red flags apparently went off.
However, CBS News investigated the same data from NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting system, which is used to report accidents resulting in deaths and injuries, and found that GM reported there were many more claims of injury and death in 2005 and 2006 Chevrolet Cobalts with airbags as a contributing factor than any other comparable cars. The difference is so stark, it’s hard to miss.
GM first started manufacturing the Cobalt in 2004. Model years 2005 and 2006, the years the death and injury rates were highest, were the first years the car was available to the public. CBS News found that there were more than 5 times the number of airbag claims in Chevy Cobalts during 2006 as the Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus, and those claims were 50 times higher in Cobalts than in Honda Civics.
Other data CBS analyzed reinforced this blaring defect. Another crash database showed that 2006 and 2006 Cobalts had the highest fatality rate per 1,000 sold in its class and the highest rates of death when then the airbags failed to deploy.
General Motors has admitted it knew of the ignition switch defect as early as 2004 but failed to fix it. Federal regulations require automakers to report safety defects to the NHTSA within five days of their discovery. GM didn’t recall the more than 1.6 million U.S. cars affected by the ignition switch problem until February 2014.
The Chevy Cobalt is one of six models GM recalled that contain a hypersensitive ignition switch that can allow the key to slip out of position, shutting off the engine and immobilizing the steering and brake system while preventing the car’s airbags from deploying.
The defect can create the perfect storm of trouble. First, the loss of power can cause the driver to lose control of steering and braking. Then the airbags fail to deploy should the vehicle crash.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has co-sponsored a bill that would make crash data available to the public sooner, told CBS that its graphs showing the rate of death and injury reports in 2005 and 2006 Cobalts “are pictures of death and destruction on a scale that is staggering, when full disclosure could have stopped them.”