Reuters searched the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a
national database of crash information submitted by local
law-enforcement agencies, for single-car frontal collisions where no
front air bags deployed and the driver or front-seat passenger was
The news agency compared the incidence of this kind of deadly
accident in the Chevrolet Cobalt and the Saturn Ion, the
highest-profile cars in GM's recall of 2.6 million cars with
defective switches, against the records of three popular small-car
competitors: Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
The analysis found that the frequency of such accidents in the Ion
was nearly six times that of the Corolla and twice that of the
Focus. The Ion had 5.9 such fatal crashes per 100,000 cars sold,
followed by the Cobalt, with 4.1, the Ford Focus with 2.9, the Civic
with 1.6, and the Corolla with 1.0.
It is not clear how many of the deadly accidents identified by
Reuters involved defective ignition switches, because crash reports
typically do not include that data. That leaves open the possibility
that air bags may have failed to deploy in some of the GM crashes
for reasons other than faulty switches.
GM, which has offered few details of the fatal crashes related to
faulty switches, told Reuters it derived the tally of 13 deaths from
claims and lawsuits filed against the automaker. GM checked those
claims and lawsuits against other sources available to it, including
vehicle data recorders recovered from some crashes.
The Reuters analysis relied on the FARS database, which encompasses
a much wider universe of accidents. GM declined to say whether it
had used information from the federal database.
Reuters disclosed its findings in detail to GM and federal
regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
GM declined to comment on Reuters’ findings or methodology,
responding only that: “Our focus is on doing the right thing for
customers — fixing the recalled vehicles as quickly as possible,
addressing our civic and legal responsibilities and setting a new
industry standard for safety.”
NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman told Reuters: “The final
death toll associated with this safety defect is not known to NHTSA,
but we believe it’s likely that more than 13 lives were lost.”
Toyota and Honda declined to comment. Ford said it took issue with
the Reuters findings concerning the Focus, but didn’t specify its
GM engineers first encountered problems with the switches in 2001, a
year before the first Ion went into production. The faulty GM
ignition switches could cause engines to shut off while driving,
leading to a sudden loss of power steering and power brakes, and the
failure of air bags to deploy in a crash.
Managers subsequently considered, then rejected several proposals to
repair or replace the switches because of the extra cost, GM told
NHTSA and congressional investigators.
The automaker did not begin recalling the cars until February 2014,
after a two-and-a-half-year internal investigation. Eventually, GM
recalled every Ion and Cobalt built from model years 2003 to 2010.
Reuters used those model years for its analysis.
Using the FARS database of crashes reported to U.S. safety
regulators between 2003 and 2012, Reuters identified 45 front-seat
fatalities in the Cobalt and 29 in the Ion. In similar crashes,
there were 44 fatalities in the Ford Focus, 41 in the Honda Civic
and 24 in the Toyota Corolla.
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Reuters found the Focus had 43 fatal accidents, the Cobalt had 42,
the Civic had 39, the Ion had 28 and the Corolla had 24. While the
raw crash numbers appear comparable, the rate of deadly crashes was
higher in the two GM models, as the Ford, Honda and Toyota models
sold in substantially greater numbers.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit safety
research group connected with the U.S. insurance industry, reviewed
the Reuters analysis.
David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer,
said: “Your crash rates suggest that Cobalt and Ion are less
crashworthy than the other models for which you’ve computed similar
statistics,” and are similar to those in a 2011 IIHS analysis.
Zuby added that there were several limitations to the analysis,
noting that “while your analysis does focus on circumstances that
are similar to the cases involving GM air bags that failed to deploy
because of the ignition switch problem, it cannot be said
definitively that the ignition switch problem” caused 74 deaths.
It is possible, Zuby said, that limitations in the data examined by
Reuters may overstate the number of deaths attributable to air bag
non-deployment in the car models examined.
Those limitations include the fact that there are other reasons why
air bags may not deploy in a frontal crash, such as a car sliding
under a truck.
Air bag defects unrelated to the ignition switch could cause a
failure to deploy, he said, and air bags are designed not to deploy
in some situations, such as where the passenger is a child. Zuby
also noted that an Insurance Institute study showed the FARS
database overstated the problem of air bag non-deployments.
That means the number of fatalities from the Reuters analysis is
probably inflated, he said. However, the problems would not affect
one model more than another, he added.
At the same time, there are other ways in which the Reuters tally
may undercount switch-related fatalities in the GM models. The FARS
crash data runs only through 2012, and Reuters did not include two
fatalities of backseat passengers.
The fatalities entered in the FARS database and reviewed by Reuters
do not include at least five of the 13 deaths acknowledged by GM.
One died in 2013, past the range of the current FARS data, and two
died in a multi-car accident.
Another, Amber Marie Rose, was killed in the July 2005 single-car
crash of her 2005 Cobalt in Maryland. GM has confirmed that Rose is
among the 13 victims, and investigators hired by NHTSA said her air
bag did not deploy. But the FARS data indicates that the air bag did
deploy and her death isn’t included in the Reuters count.
(Additional reporting by Marilyn Thompson; editing By Peter
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