Vehicle safety group links 303 deaths to GM ignition switch recall

2009 study says figure may be greatly inflated

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WXYZ) - The 31 crashes and 12 deaths GM says are linked to faulty ignition switches may be greatly underestimated.  That’s according to vehicle safety watchdog Clarence Ditlow, whose independent Center for Auto Safety in Washington says more than 300 fatalities could be linked to the defects.

It’s one of a string of questions being asked in wake of GM’s recall of more than 1.6 million vehicles, including the Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion. GM says faulty ignition switches can cause the vehicles’ engines to shut down, disabling power steering and air bags.

In Ditlow’s review of data, he and his team discovered 303 deaths in recalled Cobalts and Ions happened after their airbags failed to deploy.  It’s unclear if all of the deaths are really related to the ignition problem and GM says a suggestion that they are is just speculation.

But a 2009 study casts doubt on Ditlow's figures.  The study, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Study Center for Trauma and EMS at the University of Maryland, found that the data relied on by Ditlow--from a database called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System--was overstated.

Yesterday, for the first time, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx weighed in on the widening GM mess. He defended the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who was aware of  problems for years but never launched a formal probe. 

"Despite three crash investigations and other research, the data was inconclusive," Foxx said. "It just didn’t point to a formal investigation. NHTSA is currently looking for ways to improve its own investigations and recall processes."

Contact Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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