That question may end up driving multiple investigations into the reluctance of General Motors and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to take action on a deadly defect known to both for years before a recall was finally ordered. At first, a dozen deaths were attributed to the ignition-switch defect, but new data reported on Thursday by the New York Times may put that over three hundred:

As lawmakers press General Motors and regulators over their decade-long failure to correct a defective ignition switch, a new review 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 review of the air bag failures from 2003 to 2012, by the Friedman Research Corporation, 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. G.M. has linked 12 deaths to the faulty switch in the two models analyzed, the 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2003-7 Saturn Ions, as well as four other models. …

G.M. 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, disabling the 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, and none are in production anymore.

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

The failure of air bags to deploy might be caused by this ignition-switch defect, which turns off most of the car’s electronics while in operation. The power gets cut to most functions, making the car difficult to drive but also disabling air bags and seat-belt locks in a collision. This list of 303 deaths represent all of the fatal air-bag failures on the affected models for this ignition-switch problem, though, and not just those tied explicitly to the switch.

GM complained about the use of the broader numbers on Thursday:

The Center for Auto Safety, a public interest group started by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union, has written to federal safety regulators charging that the number of accidents is far greater than being admitted by GM.

General Motors says it has traced a defect in an ignition switch to at least 12 deaths. The problem caused the car to shut off while driving — disabling the airbag system.

But GM disputes the Center for Auto Safety’s suggestion, reported Thursday night by the New York Times, that all those deaths are tied to the problems with the ignition.

“Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions,” the company said in a statement. “In contrast, research is underway at GM and the investigation of the ignition switch recall and the impact of the defective switch is ongoing.”

GM is correct that this is “raw data” and not thoroughly analyzed for proper cause. However, part of the reason why that is the case is that GM didn’t reveal the problem with the ignition switches until nearly a decade after the problem was discovered. The NHTSA, which is supposed to protect consumers from defective vehicle equipment, sat on this since 2007. In those earlier cases, it’s possible that investigators who were left in the dark about this defect may not have known to look for it.

By the way, what was the cost to replace this defect that GM apparently thought was too high to absorb? Er …

Before the disclosure of these documents, the earliest instance cited by GM had been from 2004, when a Chevy Cobalt lost power because the ignition switch turned on its own, disabling the airbags. GM employees were able to replicate the problem but the company determined it would take too long and cost too much to fix the defect.

However, the maker of the part in question tells the Journal that the cost of a replacement for the defective part is between $2-5 and that it can be replaced in a matter of minutes.

House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Fred Upton (R-MI) has begun to take a look at why GM and the NHTSA took no action for years on this defect, while the federal government scrutinized Toyota over an acceleration issue that may have been less deadly. The bailout of GM made Treasury a prominent stakeholder in GM during most of this period, and some wonder whether the Obama administration waited until Treasury finally divested itself of GM stock to take a look at this defect.

Hot Air has obtained a letter to Upton from the National Legal and Policy Center, in which its president Peter Flaherty stresses the need for a complete investigation. The NLPC has now filed FOIA requests with Treasury, NHTSA, and the Department of Transportation to determine if the lack of attention to this defect was deliberate, and Flaherty gives Upton a list of questions to answer in this investigation as well:

Dear Chairman Upton,

It is with great concern that I write to you regarding the troubling indications that the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and General Motors have failed in their duty to protect the safety of American motorists.

As your committee prepares for the upcoming House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the recent GM recall, I urge you to use every opportunity to examine what, if any, influence the U.S. government’s ownership of GM has had on this troubling failure to address the dangerously flawed vehicles. In addition, we urge your committee to consider posing the following questions to panelists at your hearing:

1. In late 2009, GM sued supplier JTEKT North America for $30 million over faulty steering columns associated with the very same vehicles recalled over the most recent ignition switch issue. Does GM intend to sue Delphi Mechatronics for the faulty ignition switch issues?

2. In 2005, GM settled a lawsuit with Amber Marie Rose, a 16 year old killed in a Cobalt crash when the ignition switch had shut down the cars airbags during a crash. GM’s Vice Chairman of Global Product Development was asked recently if he had ever been informed of any potential defect in the car’s ignition system and he replied “never.” Given the 2005 legal settlement, which almost certainly would have required approval by GM’s executive leadership, how is it possible that senior executives of the company such as Bob Lutz could not have known about the defect?

3. What prompted Delphi Mechatronics to change the ignition switch in late 2006? Did GM and Delphi Mechatronics ever communicate about problems with the ignition switch?

4. Did GM ever notify Delphi Mechatronics that there was a problem or request a design change?

5. Did Delphi Mechatronics ever notify GM that there was a problem with the ignition switch or notify GM that the equipment had been redesigned or changed?

GM’s February 13 recall of 1.6 million vehicles for faulty ignition switches that have been linked to 13 deaths and 31 crashes was prompted by civil lawsuits and media pressure, rather than NHTSA action, despite reports the agency knew about this dangerous defect.

Furthermore, the overdue recall came a long decade and many deaths after GM knew its ignition switches were defective. Similar failures brought Toyota leadership before Congress to be held accountable just a few years ago, but GM appears to have benefited from privileged treatment by the Obama administration just as the bailout gave UAW preferential treatment over other creditors in the bankruptcy.

NLPC is sending several Freedom of Information Act requests to NHTSA, the Department of Treasury, and the Department of Transportation seeking answers to these questions and what communication, if any, government officials, UAW and GM had about any Cobalt issues during the bailout proceedings.

In fact, as has been reported just this week, under the terms of its bankruptcy, GM may be free from liability for injuries arising before its 2009 takeover bankruptcy. The Wall Street Journal reported that, “As part of GM’s government-led restructuring in 2009, the auto maker washed away a bevy of product-liability lawsuits against it” (March 8, 2014). Could this be why the public is finally learning about this vehicle safety issue just two short months after the U.S. Treasury sold its final share in late December 2013?

The U.S. Treasury Department had an interest in seeing General Motors stock increase in value, and GM had an interest in being absolved in all liability prior to 2009. However, the safety of the American public does not seem to have been an interest to either entity, not even to NHTSA, which has a responsibility to protect public safety.

American taxpayers are still struggling to accept their $10 billion GM bailout loss. We hope the bailout isn’t the cause of loss of life too.

Sincerely,

Peter Flaherty
President

Those hearings should produce some interesting testimony, and perhaps the FOIA requests will produce some interesting insights into how this defect got ignored for so long.