Reuters, today, announced the results of an investigation into the General Motors ignition switch recall, claiming that at least 74 people have been killed in accidents with "similarities" to the accidents that GM attributed to the deaths of 13 people. Reuters is also claiming that the crash statistics analyzed, for the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, revealed that drivers were more likely to be involved in a fatal crash in the GM products than in competitive vehicles.
According to Reuters, it analyzed the incidence of single-car, frontal crash tests where the airbags did not deploy and at least one of the front-seat occupants was killed. It discovered that for every 100,000 Ions on the road, 5.6 were involved in fatal crashes. The Cobalt, meanwhile, had 4.1 fatal crashes for every 100,000 cars, while the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla had 2.9, 1.6 and 1.0 fatal crash per 100k vehicles.
Of course, you may be wondering how Reuters knows that 74 people were killed due to GM's ignition switch problems. The simple answer is, it doesn't, a fact that it acknowledges, writing:
In fact, as pointed out by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Executive Vice President and Chief Research Officer David Zuby to Reuters, it is entirely possible that "limitations" in the data analyzed may actually overstate the number of people killed due to undeployed airbags. One of the big "limitations" is the simple fact that sometimes airbags aren't meant to deploy, even in a frontal impact.
"It is not clear how many of the deadly accidents identified by Reuters involved defective ignition switches, because crash reports typically do not include that data. That leaves open the possibility that air bags may have failed to deploy in some of the GM crashes for reasons other than faulty switches."
Then there's the issue of the statistical system Reuters used for its analysis, which isn't acknowledged in the story. Once again, it's the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is the same system responsible for an episode in March which saw Friedman Research Corporation claim that 303 people had been killed driving the Cobalt and Ion. Besides the fact that FARS doesn't, as Zuby points out, consider situations where airbags aren't meant to deploy, it also relies heavily on police data, which The Detroit News called "not always reliable," in its March report.
Those two factors are big reasons why FARS is only one of the statistical tools that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uses. The other is the National Automotive Sampling System/Crashworthiness Data System. According to our March story, which cited a 2009 IIHS study, NASS/CDS reported that airbags deployed in 45 percent of the fatal front accidents that FARS claimed lacked airbag deployment. We said it then, and we'll say it again now, FARS is simply not a reliable measure of airbag deployments.
This isn't meant to discount the Reuters' study, which Reuters itself points out may have resulted in an inflated figure, via its interview with Zuby. There is some value here, particularly in regards to the analysis of fatal crashes per 100,000 vehicles and how the Cobalt and Ion relate to the competition. Although it relies on FARS data, a similar analysis including NASS/CDS could provide a better picture of just how many people were killed due to the faulty ignition switches preventing airbag deployment.
Take a look below for an emailed statement from GM spokesman Greg Martin. Then head into Comments and let us know what you think of Reuters findings. Do you think the final death toll will be higher or lower?
The Fatalities Analysis Reporting System ("FARS") is a nationwide census providing NHTSA, Congress and the American public yearly data regarding fatal injuries suffered in motor vehicle traffic crashes. Although FARS contains information on fatalities within the recall population, GM does not have information on most of these crashes. GM arrived at the figure of 13 fatalities by assessing the detailed information in the claims data available to us. The criteria we used to make the determination was based on engineering expertise in both air bag deployment and electrical systems.
Airbags are supplemental restraints designed to deploy only in certain crashes. There are a number of factors that may contribute to an airbag deployment, such as severity of the cash, the angle of impact, occupant position and duration of the crash.
GM continues to monitor all claims we are made aware of in the recall population