General Motors, which survived the Great Recession with the help of a government bailout, is facing another crisis.
The carmaker belatedly announced a massive recall of cars with faulty ignition systems that have been linked to 12 deaths. Now, a new review of federal crash data commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety, a long-standing consumer group, has found that 303 drivers and front-seat passengers died in accidents in which air bags did not inflate in two of the six models that have been recalled.
GM announced last month that it was recalling 1.6 million vehicles to repair the defective ignition switch. The move came more than a decade after getting the first complaints about these problems. The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into how GM handled the recall, and congressional investigators are also looking into the matter.
GM’s stock price has fallen more than 7 percent this week as questions about the recall mounted. The Center for Auto Safety and another consumer group, Public Citizen, have called on the company to create a $1 billion trust to compensate victims. Under the terms of the company’s Chapter 11 restructuring, it is not liable for legal claims that predate its 2009 bankruptcy.
The Center for Auto Safety has accused GM and federal auto safety regulators of failing to aggressively pursue complaints about the faulty ignition switches that caused cars to stall – making it impossible to steer and disabling the air bags even in violent collisions, according to The New York Times.
GM said that the ignition cut-offs may have been caused by a heavy key ring in the ignition switch or a sudden jarring to the key. The car manufacturer has told federal regulators that reports of problems date back to 2001, and federal regulators began looking into reports of problematic switches several years later. But the company took issue with the new study, which used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Analysis Reporting System.
A GM spokesman told the The Times that using that raw data without deeper analysis amounts to “pure speculation.”
The review of the federal crash data, undertaken by Friedman Research Corp. for the Center for Auto Safety, focused on two of the six GM models being recalled – the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion.
The four other models include the 2005-2007 Pontiac G5, the 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice and the 2007 Saturn Sky.