World and Nation

General Motors air bag failures linked to 303 deaths

As lawmakers press General Motors and regulators over their decadelong failure to correct a defective ignition switch, a new accounting of federal crash data shows that 303 people died after the air bags failed to deploy on two of the models that were recalled last month.

The calculation of the air bag failures, by the Friedman Research Corp., adds to the mounting reports of problems that went unheeded before General Motors announced last month that it was recalling more than 1.6 million cars worldwide because of the defective switch. GM has linked 12 deaths to the defective switch in the two models analyzed, the 2003-5 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-7 Saturn Ions, as well as four other models.

The analysis by Friedman Research, a company that analyzes vehicle safety data, looked at cases in which the air bags failed to deploy but did not attempt to evaluate what caused the crashes.

The Center for Auto Safety, a private watchdog group in Washington, commissioned the study, and, in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, criticized the agency for not detecting the air bag failures, as well as the defective ignition switch.

Regulators said there was not enough evidence to warrant an investigation.

General Motors criticized the use of the database, called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

“As knowledgeable observers know, FARS tracks raw data,” Greg Martin, a GM spokesman, said. “Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions.”

GM has recalled six car models because of defective ignition switches that, if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key chain, can shut off engines and power systems and disable air bags. On Feb. 13, it recalled 778,000 cars, including the 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5. Twelve days later, the company more than doubled the recall with four more models — the 2003-7 Saturn Ion; the 2006-7 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice; and the 2007 Saturn Sky. All of those models used the same ignition switch.

The company told NHTSA that it had received reports of the ignition defect as far back as 2001, according to documents filed with the safety regulator this week. GM said the problem has been linked to 31 accidents and 12 deaths, but the company has declined to release details of those incidents, including dates, locations, and names of victims.

The GM ignition problem is connected to air bags because, to deploy, they require electrical power provided by the engine.