29-year-old Brooke Melton was killed in a 2009 crash involving her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

In the nearly 70 years that I have covered the auto industry, I don’t recall a major story that has been so poorly reported as the controversy about GM’s ignition switches.

I attribute this to my belief that, unfortunately, relatively few journalists and editors – not to mention politicians –have ever studied statistics, though they may sometimes handily cherry-pick stats to make a point.

Let’s start with the gross, or “box car” numbers, as I like to call them.  There are an estimated nearly 300 million passenger vehicles on US roads today, a number that increases by four to eight million every year.  This number includes light trucks and SUVs.

Over the last 20 years, nearly 540,000 vehicle occupants have been fatally injured in vehicle crashes, an average of about 27,000 a year. This number actually has been decreasing in recent years: in the last couple of years, only about 21,000 occupants have died annually in auto and light truck crashes.  (Not included are pedestrians, motorcycle riders, and others not classified as vehicle “occupants.”)

It has been repeatedly reported that GM and NHTSA have identified 13 fatalities in crashes involving the GM cars listed as being recalled to replace the potentially faulty ignition switches.

(Data doesn’t back $10 billion GM class-action lawsuit. Click Here for the investigative report.)

It shouldn’t take a doctorate in mathematics to see that identifying the specific vehicles involved in those crashes has been a monumental, if not nearly impossible, task for both NHTSA and GM—a true “looking for the needle in a haystack” effort.

So that’s 13 out of the 3.4 million vehicles GM has announced recalling to fix the ignition switch problem, and 13 out of the 300 million vehicles on the road that NHTSA must monitor.

(Internal study finds “pattern of incompetence and neglect” led to GM’s recall woes. Click Here for the full story.)

But, as the late-night TV advertisers like to shout, “Wait, There’s More.” My analysis of the details about each fatal crash, as reported last week by the trade paper Automotive News, reveals the following facts about the incidents:

  • Of the 13 fatally injured, four were occupants of cars being driven at excessive speeds—in one case, a hard-to-believe 79 mph in a 40 mph zone, incredible because that’s supposedly with the ignition turned off.  In another four cases, the “Black Box” event data recorder did not register the speed.
  • Substance abuse – alcohol or drugs were found in the blood of four drivers of the fatal cars.
  • Seat belts were not fastened by five of the front seat occupants. (Rear belt use is not recorded by the Black Boxes.)  However, airbags are installed as safety supplements for belted occupants, not magic bullets alone.
  • In two of the cases, it was unknown, post-crash, if the ignition switch was in the “on” or “off” position because the Black Boxes in Saturn Ions were not programmed to record ignition position.  In only five cases was it known that the switch was in “accessory” position, possibly disabling airbag deployment—with perhaps no way of knowing whether that switch position occurred before or du ring the crash.  Indeed, in two cases the Black Boxes indicated the switch was in the “run” position.

This analysis suggests that GM may not be totally or solely at fault in fatal injuries supposedly resulting from flawed ignition switches.  No doubt this may play a role in how the outside compensation czar that GM has appointed may calculate possible indemnity payments for victims.

(GM CEO Mary Barra takes heat during return visit to Capitol Hill. Click Here for the latest.)

My experience in some five years serving on another auto company’s “campaign review committee” to go over the facts presented by service and engineering personnel tells me that many recalls involve solving incredible mystery stories.  To begin with, not all product deficiencies can be considered “safety related.” Some are obviously so but others, like the ignition switch issue, are very subtle and may require some extension of imagination to “connect the dots” between two of the thousands of parts in a modern car or truck.

Another problem is how safety issues can come to the attention of either NHTSA or auto company personnel.  Most company actions originate with reports from dealer service departments, routinely forwarded to auto company service or engineering departments.  Others are discovered by an auto company’s own routine continuous testing.  Only very rarely is a news media report the first an auto manufacturer learns about a product failure alleged to cause a crash or injury.

Reports by customers – except for fleet accounts—are unreliable both because they lack data and the human propensity to exaggerate.  However, such reports may be what NHTSA watchdogs must work with, as well as the delayed accounts from FARS data mostly from state police agencies.  (FARS stands for Fatal Accident Reporting System.).  It was a truly a rare circumstance that an investigator hired by a plaintiff law firm has been credited in news reports as the first to “connect the dots” between GM’s ignition switch weakness and the puzzling failure of airbags to deploy in a fatal accident.

And always, the questions which must be answered by investigators are: is the flaw as reported true, is it what could be considered a “safety defect” and is it a one-of-a-kind freak incident or is it widespread — and if the latter, how far widespread?  For a manufacturer, it may even be necessary to run time-consuming, race-against-the-clock tests to determine the cause of a safety defect and its fix.

In any event, auto companies must notify NHTSA within five days that a safety defect has been discovered, whether its resolution has been determined or not.

These are the sort of factors that I think have been under-reported, to say the least.  It may be the human propensity to “burn witches,” i.e., to point fingers of blame, or it can be simple ignorance of related technical details (including simple math).  Ignorance seems to be more typical of grand-standing politicians than the media.

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