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Data Shows Deaths Related to Ignition Switch Defect May Number Over 300

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Early this year, General Motors (GM) recalled millions of vehicles because of a possible ignition switch defect that could cause the cars to turn off unexpectedly, putting drivers and passengers at risk of serious injury.

GM implemented the recall because the defective ignition switches could turn off if bumped slightly, or if heavy keys rings jostled them out of place. The defect could cause the problem at any time during the car’s operation. Such a power shutdown would turn off all key power systems, including those that deploy air bags during an accident.

At the time of the initial recall, the company linked the problem to 13 deaths and over 30 crashes. The Center for Auto Safety recently released a report that disagrees with this estimate, putting the number of potential deaths at higher than 300.

Safety Group Links Air Bag Failures to Deaths

The Center for Auto Safety (CSA) was founded in 1970 by the Consumers Union and Ralph Nader to “provide consumers a voice for auto safety and quality in Washington and to help lemon owners fight back across the country.”

The group released the report on March 13, 2014, indicating the number of deaths potentially related to the ignition switch problem had reached 303 individuals. They reviewed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS), focusing on GM crashes that occurred between 2003 and 2012 in which the air bags did not deploy.

Results showed GM vehicles involved in the recall (Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions) were related to 303 deaths.

GM Criticizes Report

GM criticized the report, stating that the data showed only that the air bags had not deployed and that drivers and passengers had died—but did not provide evidence or any other information as to why the air bags failed. To automatically link these failures to the ignition switch problem created faulty results, according to the company.

Interviews with the families of the deceased, however—reported in the New York Times—revealed unusual circumstances related to these crashes, describing over and over again the fact that the air bags had not deployed when they should have. The CSA notes in its report that it cross-referenced the NHTSA’s death reports with GM’s “Early Warning Reports (EWR)” of death claims and found suspicious parallels between those involving vehicles with potential ignition switch defects. They criticized the NHTSA for not conducting an investigation sooner.

“NHTSA claims it did not do an investigation because it did not see a defect trend,” Executive Director Clarence Ditlow writes in a letter to the organization. “Based on the FARS, EWR, and SCI [Special Crash Investigations] information, the only way NHTSA could not see a defect trend is if it closed its eyes.”

GM Pays $35 Million

On May 16, 2014, GM was fined $35 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation for failing to recall the defective vehicles much sooner. The company was reportedly aware of the issue as early as 2004, but failed to make any significant efforts to correct it, leaving consumers at risk of serious injury and death. The NHTSA said the fine was the single highest civil penalty ever paid as a result of an NHTSA investigation of violations stemming from a recall.

Meanwhile, those consumers who were injured or who lost loved ones to crashes affected by the ignition defect may be eligible to bring claims against the company. Many such lawsuits have already been filed in courts across the country.