Autos

GM Ignition Recall: Will the Death Count Go Up?

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Late last week, federal regulators disclosed that it’s likely that the fatality count resulting from General Motors’ ignition switch recall will surpass the 13 already acknowledged by the company, Reuters reported, although the Detroit-based automaker told the site that it stood by its count for the number of fatalities, despite having raised the number of crashes associated with faulty ignition switches.

Nearly 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion vehicles, among other models, were recalled because extraneous weight on the keychain could cause the car to fall out of Run mode into Accessory, thereby shutting the car down and disabling the power steering and airbags, among other things. What would have been a pretty typical recall took an unpleasant turn when it was realized that GM knew about the problems years in advance — as many as 13 — and despite the mounting deaths, the company didn’t act on it until earlier this year.

Reuters noted that it was never fully explained how it arrived at the 13 fatality figure, initially spread over about 35 accidents. GM now says that there were about 12 more crashes that occurred as a result, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told the publication that 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.”

“GM would be in the position to determine additional cases related directly to this defect based on lawsuits, incident claims and additional data reported directly to the automaker from its customers, dealerships, insurance companies, safety groups, and other sources,” the agency added. GM spokesperson Jim Cain said that, “To the best of our knowledge, there have been 13 fatalities that may be related to the ignition switch defect. That’s after a thorough analysis of the information available to us.”

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GM, though, is still in the midst of delving into years of data to uncover what exactly went wrong and resulted in the situation that it find itself in now. “If we come across new information, of course, we will share it with the agency. We’re totally focused on fixing all of the cars as quickly as we can,” Cain said. He added that GM determined the fatalities “by assessing the detailed information in the claims data available to us,” and “engineering expertise in both air bag deployment and electrical systems.”

The Center for Auto Safety, however, back in March said that it believes that over 300 people have been killed as a result of the ignition failure, though GM at the time wrote off the report as being based on “raw data” and “without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions,” Reuters said.

The NHTSA “has been assisting families by identifying whether or not their loved ones are in the number counted by GM,” the site quoted the agency as saying. 

This could mean that more lawsuits and greater fines will play a big role in GM’s future. Consciously or not, GM neglected to identify a pattern of deaths — 13 or 300 — over the span of 10 years, a figure which will not sit well with House subcommittees, federal agencies, or the general public. In the interest of putting this behind the company and moving forward, though, it would behove General Motors to identify an accurate figure sooner than later and get down to restoring its damaged public image.