29 September 2014

How many ignition switch deaths?

   A sad tale of missed opportunities on the front page of Friday's New York Times: A 27-year old law student, Lara Gass, died in the fiery crash of her Saturn Ion just three days after she received a recall notice from GM for a faulty ignition switch. The flaw in the switch, undetected by GM for over a decade, allowed it to turn to the ACC position if jostled slightly, disabling the air bags. The message: If only GM had acted sooner, her life and many others might have been spared! All the story lacks is a convincing connection between her death and the faulty switch.
   The story of how GM engineers failed to detect the faulty switch is a fascinating one, about which I've written before. But while there are still some unanswered questions, it's hard to see how the switch could have been involved in Ms. Gass's crash. Some facts are clear: Two tractor-trailers stopped on the highway to avoid a wreck, and Ms. Gass's car plowed into the back of one of them. A photograph shows the car, its driver's compartment totally demolished and blackened by fire.
   Beyond that, facts are sketchy. A police officer was puzzled as to why Ms. Gass was not able to stop in time. The car's data recorder was destroyed in the fire, as was any physical evidence as to whether the airbags deployed. Two eyewitnesses who pulled the young woman out of the car moments before the vehicle erupted in flames said they saw no airbags. One suspects, however, that they were preoccupied with getting the young woman out of the car, and in any case their testimony comes from the lawyers for Ms. Gass's parents.
   Even if the airbags didn't deploy, it's hard to see how the ignition switch could have caused the failure. The article does not mention whether there was any physical evidence that the key was in the ACC position. GM insists that the key will not turn to the ACC position if there are no other objects on the key chain, but while Ms. Gass's parents had warned her to remove other objects from the key chain, the fire destroyed the chain.
   When the key on any GM car turns to the ACC position, power to the sensor for the airbags is lost after about 0.15 seconds. This is designed to prevent the airbag from going off if the car is hit while parked. But 0.15 seconds should be enough time to trigger the airbags in a head-on crash. Almost all the cases that came to GM's attention involved a crash preceded by a bump, as when a car jumps a curb or hits a small bush (the bump) and then hits a more substantial object, such as a tree (the crash). The theory is that the bump jolts the ignition switch to the ACC position, cutting off power to the airbag sensor and preventing the airbags from deploying in the ensuing crash. That clearly is not what happened in the Gass crash. (Actually two of the airbag failures that GM investigated--one fatal--didn't follow the bump-then-crash scenario, but airbags must occasionally fail for other reasons.)
   GM has set up an uncapped fund, initially for $400 million, administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, to compensate victims of the faulty switch. Mr. Feinberg has now made an offer to Ms. Gass's parents to settle any claims they may have against GM. The size of the offer is confidential, but the low offer for any fatality is reportedly $1 million.
   I doubt that there will be many claims that were actually caused by the defective switch, or that GM expects to see any of its $400 million again, so giving large settlements to anyone who was killed or injured in a GM car where the airbags may not have deployed wouldn't be the worst use of the money, whether or not the defective switch was the cause. Two things remain disturbing, however. First, how could the Times, which has run numerous prominently placed stories on the ignition switch problem, have so bungled things by misrepresenting the problem? The situation is bad enough--the faulty switch almost certainly killed some people--but there's no excuse for inciting what resembles a lynch mob. The Times selected 10 of the 211 comments on the story as "NYT picks." The first sentence of the first pick reads "GM has put more lives at risk on American soil than ISIS could dream of"; the second states that "All of this simply proves that if a corporation has enough money and political clout it could avoid personal liability of those individuals that allowed this tragedy to occur. ... The company should be put out of business." The Times' role in promoting this kind of hysteria is not an honorable one.
   Second, given the standards, or lack thereof, for settling claims, how will we ever know just how many casualties were caused by the faulty switch? The Times referred to "the rising death toll from accidents linked by the company to the ignition-switch defect," but that rising toll (23 as I write this) may be an artifact of Mr. Feinberg's relaxed standards. Again, I have no trouble with giving away the money, but I think we should be clear that some of the awards probably have nothing to do with the switch problem.

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