Investigation Uncovers 303 Deaths in GM Cars Where Air Bags Failed to Deploy

A review of federal crash data, commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety, shows 303 people died after air bags failed to deploy in two General Motors car models recalled last month for an ignition switch defect.

Friedman Research Corporation reviewed air bag failures that occurred from 2003 to 2012. Last month GM recalled 1.6 million cars because of a defective ignition switch that can suddenly switch off, disabling the car’s electrical systems and the air bags, The New York Times reports. GM has acknowledged the defect’s link to 31 crashes and 13 deaths; this new investigation has uncovered numerous other air bag failures linked to deaths.

According to the Center for Auto Safety, the 303 victims were riding in the car’s front seat, where air bags were located, and they died in nonrear-impact crashes of Cobalts and Ions, in which the air bags did not deploy. These deaths constitute about 26 percent of all fatalities (1,148) in crashes involving these models. Friedman Research examined air bag failures using raw data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database, the Times reports. But GM says without “rigorous analysis,” it is “pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions” from raw data.

The Center for Auto Safety criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for not detecting trends in air bag failures or the switch defect. Though NHTSA has claimed it has not had sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center, writes, “In some instances single complaints can trigger a recall.”

The recall includes six models: 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007 Pontiac G5; 2003-7 Saturn Ion; 2006-7 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice; and the 2007 Saturn Sky, none of which are in production any more. All used the same ignition switch, according to the Times.

GM is the subject of a widening set of investigations into its failure to act on a safety problem that came to light ten years ago. Committees in both branches of Congress are planning hearings into the issue and the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation this week, the Times reports. In 2004 and 2005, GM executives rejected fixes proposed by its engineers. The company’s response was a technical service bulletin to dealers in 2005: dealers were told to advise drivers to remove everything from their key ring except the car key to reduce extra weight that could jostle the ignition switch out of position.


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