'303 deaths': A misleading number, but a significant one

Three hundred three.

Get used to that number. It will be copied and pasted across the Internet, perhaps even on the New York Times’ Web site. It will be trumpeted across the airwaves on talk radio and financial-news TV. And it will be hurled around the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

It will take on a life of its own as a “shocking new figure,” the “real” or “rising” death toll from General Motors' failure to design a decent ignition switch.

The number comes from a report commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety and based on a review of accidents involving 2005-07 Cobalts and 2003-07 Saturn Ions in which airbags did not deploy.

The report was thrust before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration late Thursday, along with a letter from Clarence Ditlow, the center’s executive director, challenging the agency to explain how so many deaths -- the 303 figure already being taken as a given -- failed to trigger an investigation.

Forget for a moment that the number is a raw datum, as telling as, say, any three digits of a telephone number. It doesn’t, for example, account for whether the ignition switch was a factor in the accidents or in the lack of airbag deployment, or whether the crash was of the type that would normally trigger the airbag.

Applying even a bit of analysis to the Center’s number shows that the Cobalt’s and Ion’s fatality numbers don’t differ much from other compact cars in cases where the airbag didn’t inflate. Even a safety group, it seems, can be a bit reckless with statistics.

Based on its own analysis, GM says only 12 deaths have so far been linked to the switch, whose inadequacy was identified more than a decade ago. But sorry, GM: That’s 12 deaths too many. And in that sense, the figure may as well be 303.

Thirteen years of quiet hand-wringing on a potentially deadly product defect -- coupled with four decades of mediocre car-building and a government bailout that angered half the nation -- will earn you a good amount of distrust, no matter how good the new Stingray is.

GM’s civil liability is sharply limited by the terms of its bankruptcy. Its potential criminal liability is the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation.

But in the court of public opinion, GM faces open-ended liability. It’s answerable to every family member of those 12 people, every survivor of those 303 people, and indeed, anyone who has ever been injured in a GM product, owned one, driven one, considered buying one, or funded a taxpayer bailout to help crank out more of them.

GM should consider itself fortunate if that count stops at 303. While it has reason to quibble with the number, it’s in no position anymore to control the dialogue.

You can reach Krishnan M. Anantharaman at krishnan@crain.com

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