As lawmakers press General Motors and regulators over their decadelong failure to correct a defective ignition switch, a new accounting of federal crash data shows that 303 people died after the airbags failed to deploy on two of the models that were recalled last month.
The calculation of the airbag failures, by the Friedman Research Corp., adds to the mounting reports of problems that went unheeded before General Motors announced last month that it was recalling more than 1.6 million cars worldwide because of the defective switch. GM has linked 12 deaths to the defective switch in the two models analyzed, the 2003-2005 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, as well as four other models.
The analysis by Friedman Research, a company that analyzes vehicle safety data, looked at cases in which the airbags failed to deploy but did not attempt to evaluate what caused the crashes.
The Center for Auto Safety, a private watchdog group in Washington, commissioned the study and, in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, criticized the agency for not detecting the airbag failures, as well as the defective ignition switch.
"NHTSA claims it did not do an investigation because it did not see a defect trend," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center, wrote in the letter. "In some instances, single complaints can trigger a recall."
General Motors criticized the use of the database, called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
"As knowledgeable observers know, FARS tracks raw data," said Greg Martin, a GM spokesman. "Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions."
GM has recalled six car models because of defective ignition switches that, if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key chain, can shut off engines and power systems and disable air bags. On Feb. 13, it recalled 778,000 cars, including the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5. Twelve days later, the company more than doubled the recall with four more models — the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion; the 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice; and the 2007 Saturn Sky.