About 3,400 people die each year in frontal crashes with no airbag deployment in their vehicle, according to federal data analyzed by Automotive News.
The number -- amounting to one-tenth of all traffic fatalities -- underscores the difficulty of discerning between incidents when airbags might have failed due to a defect and those in which a variable such as speed or angle of impact was a factor in the airbags not deploying.
A detailed examination of the government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System identified 120 deaths in front-impact crashes with no airbag deployment in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions covered by General Motors' ignition recall. Forty-one people died in rollovers, and six crashes involved a fire; both are conditions in which an accident could be severe enough to kill without triggering the airbags.
For the 73 other deaths, the database gives few clues to the factors at play. A 2009 study of similar crashes in the database by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the University of Maryland concluded that more than half were crashes in which the researchers would not have expected the airbags to deploy.
Perry Zucker, an engineer who frequently testifies about airbags in court cases, said the lack of deployment in a crash doesn't necessarily indicate a defect.
For example, if a vehicle is traveling at close to the minimum speed threshold for deployment "and it's not a direct frontal collision, it's borderline," Zucker said. But in high-speed crashes in which a vehicle hits an obstacle head-on, he said, "it absolutely should have deployed."
The analysis by Automotive News identified significantly fewer deaths than a recent study commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety. That study found 303 deaths in the recalled Ions and Cobalts during the same period, 2003 through 2012, but it included side-impact as well as frontal crashes.
For 2012, the Center for Auto Safety study cited 45 deaths that it said could potentially be linked to the recalled ignition switches; Automotive News found 14.
GM says it knows of 12 deaths in frontal crashes with no airbag deployment in the recalled cars, all from 2005 through 2009.
The Automotive News analysis also found that many of the deaths in crashes without airbag deployment were pedestrians, cyclists or occupants of another vehicle.