As many as 303 deaths could have been caused by a defect that recently prompted General Motors Co. to recall 1.6 million cars, according to a new report commissioned by an independent consumer watchdog group.
GM has acknowledged 12 deaths linked to faulty ignition switches that can disable the cars' safety systems.
In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Center for Auto Safety on Thursday cited raw data pulled from accident reports connected to two of the six models GM has recalled.
The data cited by the center's letter was analyzed by Friedman Research Corp., which evaluates vehicle design and safety. By looking at NHTSA's database of fatal crashes involving the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and the 2003-07 Saturn Ion in which the air bags did not deploy, Friedman determined that 303 people in the driver's seat or front passenger seat were killed.
Of the 1.6 million cars recalled, 1.4 million are in the U.S. The models affected include several model years of the Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky and Pontiac G5, along with the Ion and Cobalt. The cars all share the same ignition component, and none of them remain in production.
The number of fatalities increased while GM and the NHTSA delayed seriously addressing the issue for years, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.
"NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why air bags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers," Dit
low wrote to federal safety regulators.
GM vigorously challenged Friedman's findings in a statement.
"As knowledgeable observers know, FARS (fatality analysis reporting systems) tracks raw data. Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions," the automaker said.
Because the raw data relates to all front-seat fatalities in which the air bags didn't deploy, the fatalities cannot be directly linked to the ignition problem. The 303 deaths could also be caused by other issues, such as a faulty passenger seat air bag detection system.
"This is certainly a place from which to start looking at crashes to see what might be directly related to the ignition switch," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, an independent, for-profit safety research company. "We need further analysis to see how many of these are related directly to an ignition issue."
Both the automaker and NHTSA have come under fire from safety experts for dragging their feet in issuing the recalls. Documents submitted by GM show the automaker was aware of the problem on a prototype Saturn Ion in 2001 and on production models in 2004.
Yet the automaker didn't issue the first recall until Feb. 13 of this year, and the second on Feb. 25. GM also issued a rare apology after the second recall.
The Department of Justice and committees in the U.S. House and Senate are now investigating whether GM delayed recalling the cars, as well as whether NHTSA should have demanded the automaker act sooner.
The issue with the ignition switch has been traced to drivers having heavy key chains or making incidental contact with the ignition key while driving. This can cause the cars to shut off and disable safety systems such as power steering, antilock brakes and air bags.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra has promised an unvarnished internal review into what may have caused delays in issuing the recalls, a sentiment GM reiterated Thursday.
"We want our customers to know that today's GM is committed to fixing this problem in a manner that earns their trust," the company said.