At least 8 died after GM switch redesign got OK

Earlier recall could have averted most deaths

At least 8 died after GM switch redesign got OK

The fatal crash of this Chevrolet Cobalt occurred in St. Croix County in Wisconsin in October 2006, six months after General Motors had approved a design change in the vehicle's ignition switch.
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DETROIT — Of the eight deaths in Chevrolet Cobalts that General Motors has linked to faulty ignition switches, seven occurred after April 2006, when GM says it approved a redesign of the part now being recalled, according to research by Automotive News.

In addition, at least one of the four deaths GM has linked to recalled Saturn Ions occurred after the 2006 part change.

The research indicates that all of the deaths involved cars built before the switch was redesigned; had GM simultaneously elected to recall the cars, repairs could have been performed before a majority of the fatal crashes happened. It also shows that only one of the 12 deaths occurred after GM emerged from bankruptcy protection in July 2009.

GM has declined to discuss publicly 11 of the 12 fatalities, and some of the victims’ families say they have never had contact with GM. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has requested that GM turn over by Thursday records related to the 34 crashes and 12 deaths it has cited.

“All of the incidents that are chronicled in our submission will be reviewed with the appropriate internal examiners and external investigators,” GM spokesman Jim Cain said last week.

A July 2005 crash that killed a 16-year-old girl in Maryland was listed on a timeline submitted to NHTSA in February. The other seven Cobalt fatalities, according to Automotive News research, occurred in October 2006 in St. Croix County in Wisconsin; October 2007 in Lyndhurst, Ohio; September 2008 in Berrien County in Michigan (two deaths); April 2009 near Knox, Pa. (two deaths); and December 2009 near Murfreesboro, Tenn.

GM says the ignitions in the 1.6 million cars it recalled last month can slip or be bumped out of the “run” position, disabling the airbags during a crash. It added 971,000 cars to that recall on Friday.

“I do remember no airbags going off in the car,” said Krystal Kolberg, whose 19-year-old son, Zachary Schoenbach, died in the Michigan crash when a friend’s 2006 Cobalt struck a tree. “And I thought that was kind of odd.”

In the Ohio crash, a 42-year-old woman died when her car ran off the road, striking a signpost, garbage cans, a guardrail and two trees.

“The airbags did not deploy,” said Lt. David Strasshofer of the Lyndhurst Police Department, even though it was “a pretty solid front-end strike.”

GM opened internal investigation files on both the Michigan and Ohio crashes soon afterward, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco this week seeking class-action status.

Strasshofer said the accident report says the driver was wearing a seat belt and

doesn’t indicate any presence of alcohol — making her the only one of the eight Cobalt fatalities in which neither seat belts nor alcohol was a factor.

Families of at least two of the people killed in Cobalts, including the sole post-bankruptcy fatality, have settled lawsuits with GM. The families of two girls killed in the Wisconsin crash — one of whom is not counted in GM’s tally because she was a back-seat passenger — sued the company March 21. Kolberg and a relative of the two people killed in the Knox, Pa., crash said they have taken no legal action against GM.

It’s unclear whether GM has been involved in lawsuits related to two of the Cobalt deaths and the four Ion deaths.

Automotive News identified two of the four Ion fatalities — one in Texas in November 2004 and one in Missouri in February 2009 — by matching Early Warning Reporting data submitted by GM to federal safety regulators with entries in the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

GM says the engineer in charge of the Cobalt’s ignition switch signed a document approving a redesign on April 26, 2006. The alteration was made without changing the part number, which former GM engineers told Automotive News was a violation of company protocol.

By that time, GM had sent dealers at least two versions of a service bulletin discussing the problem, but it did not directly notify customers.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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