From 2005 through 2007, a key period when General Motors fixed a defective ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion without recalling the old switch, GM sent five times as many early-warning reports of deaths and injuries to U.S. regulators as its competitors did: 6,493 in all, compared with 1,308 for Chrysler, 1,282 for Toyota and just 290 for Honda.
But this disparity says more about federal law and the wildly different reporting standards automakers use to comply than it says about the safety of GM's cars. That is, Chevrolets weren't 20 times more dangerous than Hondas. GM just submitted formal reports on more accidents than Honda did.
Some news reports have cited these numbers as evidence of heightened risk, suggesting the number of reports involving airbags in the Chevrolet Cobalt should have been a warning of an ignition-switch defect that has been linked to dozens of accidents and at least 12 deaths. In 2005 and 2006, when the Cobalt was on sale, "GM reported more claims of injury and death with airbags as a contributing factor than any other car in its class," CBS News reported last week.
Experts say early-warning reports, individually and in aggregate, can be very useful in detecting a problem within a company's lineup of models. But they are nearly useless when it comes to comparing products across company lines.
The reason? Each automaker takes a different tack when complying with the TREAD Act of 2000, passed in the aftermath of the Ford-Firestone recall crisis.
The law requires automakers to submit "early warning reports" when they learn of a death or injury that may be linked to a defect. But it's up to automakers to judge what crosses this threshold. GM apparently sets the bar lower than others.
"The agency accounts for that fact when analyzing the data available to us," NHTSA said in a statement.