DETROIT -- The first death linked to faulty ignition switches in millions of General Motors cars happened more than a decade before the automaker recalled them, according to the report on GM’s internal investigation.
The death toll from the switches was two by the time GM began building the Chevrolet Cobalt in the fall of 2004 and three when a top engineer on the Cobalt program decided in early 2005 not to improve ignition switches because of the cost and time required.
The crashes were among the earliest signs missed by GM in its failure to recognize that the ignition switch contained a fatal defect and to begin treating the matter as more than a mere inconvenience to customers.
The three people each died when 2004 Saturn Ion sedans equipped with the same switch that GM used for the Cobalt crashed head-on into roadside obstacles but the airbags failed to deploy. Several years later, GM concluded that at least one of the victims would have survived if her airbag had worked properly.
The first of the crashes happened in “late 2003,” the report says, at least eight months before any of those previously known. The government’s traffic-fatality database lists only one fatal crash in 2003 involving any Saturn vehicle from the 2004 model year, in which an Ion drove off a residential street outside Miami and into a building. The 19-year-old woman identified by Automotive News as the driver died after 17 days in a hospital, during which she accumulated nearly $300,000 in medical bills that went unpaid, according to public records.
Based on available data, the Miami incident fits the criteria that GM used to identify whether fatal crashes are linked to the defect: cars going off-road, where bumps or jarring terrain may have helped jostle the ignition out of the “run” position, followed by a frontal crash in which the airbags didn’t deploy despite indications that they probably should have.
But it’s unclear whether the Miami death is among the 13 that GM has linked to the recall. The only fatal Ion crash in 2003 that GM reported to regulators is listed as occurring in Connecticut, two weeks after the Miami crash. No such incident appears in either the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System database or Connecticut’s traffic-crash database.