Many of the crashes which have been linked to the faulty ignition switch in 2.6 million General Motors vehicles presented no evidence to make investigators assume there was anything amiss with the vehicles. In some cases, the crashes seemed like the predictable result of either drunken driving, speeding, or careless driving late at night, and some were a combination of all three, Automotive News reports.
Police say they had seen plenty of car accidents where the airbags didn’t deploy for one reason or another. Investigators hired by the National Highway Traffic Administration to study three of the crashes also suspected nothing was amiss, although they noted the ignition switch was in the “accessory” position at the time of the crashes.
“I wish these crashes were as simple as they appear to be,” NHTSA’s acting administrator, David Friedman, told members of Congress earlier this month. “I wish the connection was as direct as we now know it is.”
Police interviews and documents reveal bad decisions by crash victims, such as drinking or speeding, masked the existence of a defect in the vehicles. In some of the cases, GM’s recent acknowledgment of the defect explains how or why the driver lost control.
Other factors also contributed to investigators not noticing the defects early on. For example, more than half of the 13 people killed in recalled GM cars were not wearing a seatbelt. Additionally, in four of the crashes which caused six deaths the driver was legally drunk. In another three crashes, the car was reported to be travelling at roughly 40 mph over the speed limit.
When the recalls were first announced in February, GM acknowledged the airbags could be deactivated, along with the power steering and brakes, if the ignition slipped out of the “run” position. Of the 12 fatalities where details on the crash are known, none of the victims were ejected from the car and none of the cars rolled over onto their roofs. According to crash reports, the victims were most severely injured in the head, chest or abdomen, usually by hitting the steering wheel, windshield or instrument panel.
“The airbag typically does a lot in preventing head and chest injuries,” Alan Cantor, an engineer specializing in crashworthiness told AN. “Even at the higher level crashes, the airbag can do quite a bit, even for the unbelted.”
One fatal crash GM referenced in recall timelines filed with the NHTSA is 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose’s. She crashed her 2005 Chevy Cobalt into a tree in Maryland. To investigators, the crash seemed ordinary, saying speed and alcohol were both factors in the 3:40 a.m. accident. Another crash that killed two teenagers a year later was chalked up to the fact that the 17-year old driver had only a learners permit. These were two of the four crashes the NHTSA knew about in September 2007 when it considered investigating the matter but ultimately decided not to.
Cobalt crashes in 2007 and 2008 killed three more people, but in both cases other factors overshadowed the airbag non-deployments. Both cars were reported to be speeding and evidence suggest the driver involved in the 2007 crash may have suffered a seizure. The police report for the 2008 crash, which killed two 19-year-old friends in Michigan, had no mention of car trouble. The car drove off a wet, curving road into a tree, the driver also had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit and tested positive for THC.
The driver errors which appear in many of the 35 reported crashes that can be linked to the faulty ignition switch may explain why the NHTSA waited so long to acknowledge the defect. If the fatalities had been linked solely to the fact that the airbags didn’t deploy, or the power steering or brakes didn’t work rather than a combination of those and drunk driving or inattentiveness, the NHTSA, along with GM, may have acted sooner. Now, both GM and the NHTSA are under investigation for their slow response to the recalls.