GM recall: Many victims were young drivers

As the deaths are tallied from General Motors' delayed recall of compact cars, one thing is becoming clear: Of those killed, the majority were young.
AP Wire
Apr 1, 2014

In a way, this isn't surprising. Low-priced cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion were marketed to young, first-time buyers and parents shopping for their kids.

But price may not be the only reason for the disproportionate number of youthful deaths.

The faulty ignition switches behind the recall can shut off the engine while the car is in motion. When that happens, power-assisted steering and power brakes are lost, and the air bags won't inflate in a crash.

In such a situation, inexperienced drivers are more likely to panic and be overwhelmed by the extra effort needed to control the car, safety experts say.

GM has linked 13 deaths to the problem. Others have a higher total, with the majority of victims under age 25. Many also were women, who safety experts say are less likely to have the upper body strength to wrestle a stalled car safely to the side of the road.

"With an entry-level car where you have a newly licensed driver, the freak-out will win the day," said Robert Hilliard, a Texas personal injury lawyer who is suing GM in several cases. "All that those young drivers are going to do is respond to the panic."

GM has admitted knowing for at least a decade that the switches were defective. Yet it didn't start recalling 2.6 million Cobalts, Ions and other small cars worldwide until February. CEO Mary Barra has said GM's safety processes were lacking, and she has brought in an outside attorney to review them.

Through media reports and contacts on a Facebook page, Laura Christian, birth mother of Amber Marie Rose, who was killed in a 2005 Maryland wreck in which a Cobalt air bag didn't inflate, has found crashes that claimed 29 lives.

Of those, 15 were under age 25, and 18 were women. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers ages 16 to 24 were involved in 23 percent of the 35,306 fatal crashes in the U.S. in 2012.

Relatives of many who died will attend congressional hearings on the matter Tuesday and Wednesday, and many will wear T-Shirts with Amber's picture. Barra will appear as a witness and again issue a public apology, according to her prepared testimony.

Unlike drivers from previous generations, young people don't know what it's like to drive without power steering, safety experts say. Even some older drivers could be startled when power steering goes away.

Data suggest parents buy the small cars for their kids. For instance, 68 percent of people who now own Cobalts are 35 to 64 years old, according to the Edmunds.com automotive website. Many of those buyers were at an age when they had teenage children, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

Plus, many parents had the car title put in their names to reduce insurance costs, he said.

Edmunds also said most buyers had household incomes under $100,000. That made the Cobalt appealing, because in most years it sold for a little over $15,000, or $1,000 to $3,500 less than the two top-selling small cars, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, according to Edmunds.

Parents also complained to GM and the government about the cars on behalf of their children.

In a June 2005 letter to Chevrolet customer service, later forwarded to federal safety regulators, a New Jersey mother said a 2005 Cobalt stalled three times while being driven by her daughter. She said the problem was obvious: "The problem is the ignition turn switch is poorly installed. Even with the slightest touch, the car will shut off while in motion."

Besides being affordable, the GM cars had four- or five-star ratings in most government crash test categories.

GM's marketing of the Ion and Cobalt clearly was aimed at young people. Ion ads from the time posted on YouTube showed the car taking young passengers away from high school or childhood.

A Chevy ad portrayed the Cobalt as a renegade younger brother, bumping a Corvette in the rear and provoking a reaction from its older sibling.

Kelly Bard's parents helped her buy a shiny black 2004 Ion when she was 16 and growing up in Wausau, Wis.

"At the time, it really had high safety ratings," she recalled. "It had good gas mileage, and it was what we could afford."

The Ion soon began stalling for no reason. Each time, the car became difficult to steer and the key had slipped out of the "run" position.

"It went from being able to steer with two fingers to using all of my ability to pull off and keep away from the intersection and get out of oncoming traffic," said Bard, now 26.

Even after repeated trips to the dealership's service department, the Ion kept stalling. Bard had a near-miss on a freeway entrance ramp, where a driver behind her was able to steer around the Ion. He made an obscene gesture as he passed, she remembered. Another trip to the dealer. Another supposed fix.

Then, as she was making a left turn a safe distance in front of an oncoming bus, the engine stalled again, she said.

"I thought I was going to get T-boned by the bus. I refused to drive the car again until I felt like it was safe," she said.

The dealer replaced the starter and alternator. At the same time, Bard stopped using a lanyard as her keychain. She got rid of the Ion and bought a Honda as soon as she graduated from college and got a job.

GM has said the ignition can switch off if people have long, heavy keychains, sometimes if their knees brush against the keys. Bard's lanyard had two keys and the remote control for the car's doors.

In 2005, GM notified dealers that the cars could stall because of the ignition switches. But GM didn't recall the cars, theorizing that even in a stall, people could still steer and brake without the power systems.

Because her car stalled so much, Bard knew she could still steer it. But other young people might not be able to handle such a situation, according to safety experts.

Most driver education curriculums cover a loss of power steering, said Bill Van Tassel, manager of driver education for the American Automobile Association. While some instructors have students practice in cars, many just cover it in the classroom, and it's unclear whether the young drivers retain the information, he said.

Young drivers have a high crash risk because of inexperience and immaturity, said Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"I think emergency situations bring out both of those," she said. "They're kids. They're young. They may not have as much cool, or presence of mind as an adult might have."

Comments

Wolverine49457

It might be time to dip into the Obama stash and bail out our former befuddled car company from sinking under the weight of its own mismanagement...but those Volt sales might kick in anytime and save them as well .....

Mystic Michael

A classic example of why corporate "self regulation" doesn't work. GM knew years in advance that they had a design problem on their hands. They knew that it was likely to lead to system failure, collisions, injuries...and deaths. But rather than take the financial hit of a recall and a redesign, they went right ahead anyway - probably calculating that it would cost less to settle the eventual wrongful death lawsuits than it would to fix the ignition problem...and actually prevent those deaths.

A similar kind of thing happened more than 40 years ago with the Pinto - the rolling petrol bomb that made many millions of dollars for Ford Motor Company...and helped make Lee Iacocca into a corporate "superstar"...until it was revealed that Ford had forged a similar "devil's bargain": selling out the lives of their customers in order to preserve the corporate bottom line.

As a result, some 500 people literally burned alive in their Pintos, while hundreds more were horribly maimed & injured. Real nice, eh?

http://www.autonews.com/article/...

Ever heard the expression, "What price can you put on a human life?" Well, you may not have a price in mind. But don't kid yourself, the corporations know exactly what you're worth to them. They know precisely how much they're willing to pay to preserve your life...as well as the dollar amount at which they're prepared to write you off - even if your death comes at their hands.

Self regulation, my ass!

Vladtheimp

Don't disagree with much of what you say, but it seems like the gubmint regulators we pay so much for didn't shine in this particular case. Although the GM misconduct ran from the Bush Administration through the Obama Administration, GM was virtually a wholly owned subsidiary of the government during much of the Obama administration; the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration ignored the problem for an unconscionable period of time, and it's unclear whether GM disclosed this potential liability during the non-standard bankruptcy process required by Obama. Expect to hear more on this as real lives and real lawsuits are involved. We'll see if the penalties are commensurate to what the gubmint did to Toyota. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/0...

Mystic Michael

GM has been a textbook case in corporate arrogance, hubris and general high-handedness for literally decades. By all rights, they deserved to have been put out of business, and likely would have - but for the thousands of innocent line workers whose livelihoods & pensions would have been destroyed as a result - to say nothing of the disastrous economic effect that their demise would have triggered. Hence, the federal bailout was a necessary evil, and the President was quite right to have insisted upon a change in senior management, and a restructuring - notwithstanding the obvious discomfort of the feds taking charge, and the imperfections of the regulatory process - even assuming that GM hadn't managed to infiltrate the relevant regulatory agencies with their own people, as corporations so often do.

More broadly speaking, I believe the real issue here is criminal culpability - or lack thereof. When state & federal prosecutors routinely decline to press criminal charges, defaulting such matters to the civil courts instead, where corporate lawyers can deploy their vast resources to keep a case tied up for 15-20 years until the plaintiffs' resources run dry, then settle legitimate claims for literally pennies on the dollar, they throw away their only leverage by which to ever hold these creeps accountable for their crimes: the promise of criminal prosecution, and the very real possibility of serious prison time for their senior executives.

Until that time comes, it'll continue to be "business as usual". With the implementation of so-called tort "reform" laws, even successful product liability suits that go the distance would no longer yield any significant punitive judgments - the only other means by which to make an impact in the boardroom that has ever worked, as compensatory damage awards are routinely written off as "just another cost of doing business".

dyankee

If readers were to simply, replace "GM" at the begining of your rant with "The Democrat Party" you would have nailed your analysis.

dyankee

Gubmint regulators were crawling all through GM during this time so, stop with the self regulation narrow minded conclusion and corporate greed rant. Same ole' mantra from the hate America first crowd and corporate stoning committee.

We all feel for the innocent life lost here and the families that are going through this hell so, stop piling on. (4 Americans died in the Benghazi attacks, as well at the hands of our inept Gubmint and you conveniently remain silent. What price do you put on their lives?) Both GM and Gubmint regulators were hauled into Congress today so, the process is rolling and the truth will come out eventually.

Lets not forget about the billions of dollars GM has provided to our economy, the world's economy, health care, retirement pensions, family contributions through excellent paying white & union blue collar jobs, and the endless sponsorship of events in this Country from the super bowl & academia, right down to little league baseball for our kids.....Not too mention some awesome products produced by GM over the years that millions of Americans have safely enjoyed.

Mystic Michael

The fact that it became necessary for regulators to be "crawling all through GM during this time" actually illustrates my point about the limits (and frequent farce) of corporate self regulation quite nicely. Thank you very much.

That said, those regulators were there because GM had nearly put itself out of business - and would have brought down a major sector of the entire economy with it. They were not brought in to review GM's product development process for possible life-threatening new vehicle design failures.

If you happen to believe, as a US Supreme Court majority apparently now does, that "corporations are people", then perhaps you'll explain why this new, special class of "people" should enjoy so many privileges that none of us actual people are allowed to have? If GM or Ford launches a new vehicle that they know in advance WILL kill people, they get off with a fine and/or a few civil settlements. If you allow a friend to drive your car, knowing in advance that it could burst into flames, and he is killed as a result, YOU could be charged with negligent homicide - and go to prison.

Why is it that when the oil industry routinely takes hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare that it clearly doesn't need, it's considered "making a public investment in the job creators" - but when an unemployed worker accepts a few hundred dollars in General Assistance in order to keep a roof over his head, he's considered a "leech" and a "moocher"? Why is it that nearly all of the largest 25 corporations in this country are allowed to get away with paying virtually no income tax whatsoever - while ordinary people are paying 30% and 35%?

If corporations wish to be regarded as "people", then let's see them behave like good, honorable people - not like a pack of corrupt, scheming weasels.

Tri-cities realist

"Why is it that nearly all of the largest 25 corporations in this country are allowed to get away with paying virtually no income tax whatsoever - while ordinary people are paying 30% and 35%?"

I'm glad to see that you've come around to viewing the top 1% as "ordinary people"... Nice job!

Lanivan

It's rather a shame you are so quick to take a piece on the untimely and horrifying death of young people and turn it political. Can't you set aside your political prejudices for even a discussion on life and death issues?

Tri-cities realist

Perhaps. I will follow your lead.

Tri-cities realist

Well I thought I had stumbled upon something about which MM and I agreed. I admit, it shocked me too, so perhaps I wasn't sensitive enough to the topic at hand. My deepest apologies.

dyankee

The U.S. has the HIGHEST corporate tax rate in the W-O-R-L-D!!!!
We are at a 39% rate with Japan second at 38%.

In 1940 the federal tax code of the United States was 400 pages. Today, the U.S. tax code is 70,0000 pages. Did you hear what I just said? 70,000 PAGES! What the hell?

You should get on your knees and thank every corporation you can think of, including, the one you work for by STAYING in this burecratic-red tape-EPA over regulating-tax to death-health care nightmare of a country to do business in.

The number one reason why companies leave the U.S and go elsewhere in the world is due to GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION and blocking of success.(not cheaper labor like the Unions want you to believe)

We are smoothering businesses with regulation and taxation and increasing welfare spending to levels unsustainable. Our economy is on the verge of a total and utter collapse and you're walking around the Titanic demanding a better dining table next to the richest person on the ship because you think you're being cheated as the doomed ship(ie) our economy fills with water.

Stop hating the corporations that are the life blood of our way of life. Government's role is to "monitor" NOT "intervene". Corporations & small busineses create the jobs we so desperately need and until now, provided the health care for workers and their families.

When is the last time your were hired by a person making less than you? I hope the rich DO get richer simply, because everyone else will too, but your demented way of thinking will not allow for profit above your own without the spewing of your anti corporate rants.

GM will get to the bottom of this production failure and I'm sure they will pay a heavy price to our own Government for this mistake which should make you very happy to see the big evil corporation is not getting away with murder like say, the Benghazi deaths of 4 American citizens that our Government is responsible for and to this day failing to hold anyone accountable.

Mystic Michael

If you think the federal tax code is out of control, you're right. And you have the army of corporate lobbyists in Washington to thank for it. How do you think the biggest US-based corporations get away with paying virtually no income tax in the first place? Loopholes, baby. Lots and lots of loopholes. Loopholes create unnecessary complexity. And complexity creates the need for extra pages in the tax code. Lots and lots and lots of extra pages. Do ya get it now?

As for the remainder of your diatribe, it's clear that you must have been drinking the corporate business media Koolaid for a long time now, as most of it reads like something straight from a CNBC or FOX Business News broadcast. Experience suggests that it would take virtually half a lifetime to ever correct the distorted views of someone who has so completely and absolutely swallowed this phony right-wing corporate narrative. So I will conserve my time & energy for a situation in which I can be more effective...except to state the following:

The United States is actually one of the least regulated among all the developed nations of the world. Not only are federal regulators NOT smothering business, by and large, but most of them have been struggling to even survive during the past 30+ years of constant attacks from right-wing Republican politicians and their corporate sponsors. One after another has seen its operating budget slashed, hiring freezes imposed, its administrative authority undermined, its mission and means publicly slandered and demeaned - all in an attempt to hinder that agency from effectively doing its job - i.e. the EPA, SEC, IRS, ATF, etc. They've even tried to kill off the USPS! (By the way, you may have the EPA to thank for the fact that you don't have natural gas & carcinogenic "fracking" chemicals in your drinking water, and that the skies over Chicago don't look like the skies over Beijing. You're welcome.).

In this, the most insanely wealthy nation the world has ever known, we're constantly being told the lie that we're "broke", i.e. that there simply isn't enough money to invest in our schools, to repair and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, to rehire all the police officers & teachers & EMTs we lost in recent layoffs, etc. Hogwash!

The problem is that much of the revenues that OUGHT to be going into the Treasury are instead going off-shore - to secret accounts in Belize and the Cayman Islands. And much of the revenue that actually does get collected, goes right back to the corporations, in the form of corporate welfare - and bloated Pentagon procurements (right into the pockets of Boeing & General Dynamics & Northrup-Grumman). The needs of ordinary Americans simply get lost in the shuffle - as usual.

The next time you feel inclined to excoriate the government, maybe you should step back for a moment and ask yourself, who exactly has been pulling the strings of the government? And for whose ultimate benefit?

Lanivan

May I ask, dyankee: Is this meant to be satire, a play on irony, or the screed of a person who is frighteningly lacking in facts and appears to have a high degree of willingness to accept falsehoods?

dyankee

Without writing a book or linking me to death, explain please.

Lanivan

http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/...

Hope this fulfills your caveats.

Tri-cities realist

I have a question: what is a reasonable weight that GM should have added to key rings when they did their vehicle testing? Half a pound, one pound, five pounds? Having seen some key rings full of items that would barely fit in a suit case, I find it difficult to blame GM for not preventing this. However I agree as soon as they became aware, they should have at least issued a warning to minimize the weight added to key rings. Perhaps we should blame all of the stores that give out those rewards key chain tags.

Mystic Michael

Who knows what the "reasonable weight" should be - if such a question even makes sense in this context? That is a technical question with an engineering solution. I'm confident that GM has all the expertise necessary to successfully address it. That is not the issue.

The issue is that GM has a responsibility to its customers to build and sell vehicles that will not present a mortal danger, in anything even remotely approaching normal usage. Period. End of story.

The fact that some drivers use key rings that are loaded down with lots of keys and other objects is hardly any kind of secret, esoteric information - and certainly not for the market research & consumer behavior gurus at GM. It is the company's obligation to anticipate such usage trends and to design products that are up to the challenge. It is NOT the customer's responsibility to learn all the ordinary ways in which using one's new vehicle might result in one's death - and to jump through all the requisite new behavioral hoops accordingly.

Tri-cities realist

According to your logic, GM should have anticipated a driver might attach a brick to their key (to avoid losing it through a storm drain for example, ever dropped your keys in a parking lot?) and designed their ignition switches to accommodate it. Hopefully you don't work for an automaker, your reasoning would make vehicles resemble Bradley or Abrams tanks.

However don't forget I previously stated that as soon as GM became aware of the problem, they should have alerted owners. Apparently they issued service bulletins to dealers. At a minimum they should have notified all owners, and improved the design in the next generation of ignition switches. The good news is that keys are becoming obsolete, so these types of issues should become less frequent.

However having two versions of switches with the same part number will not bode well for GM, it shows extreme incompetence, which for those who have dealt with the auto companies is not all that surprising. Scary but true.

Mystic Michael

Well, it's ultimately a matter of judgment, isn't it? Judgment that is a direct reflection of the company's corporate culture - whether that culture is a culture of proactive social responsibility, or a culture of cutting moral, ethical & legal corners, hoping that they don't get caught.

I'm glad that you can see the wisdom of the company notifying customers of the ignition problem, as well as actually fixing the design - although a recall and free ignition upgrade at the dealership would have been preferable. While we can agree that using a brick on a key chain probably falls outside any sensible definition of "normal" or "reasonable" usage, where we apparently part company is on the matter of whether it is reasonable to expect a customer to use a key chain to hang...keys.

Tri-cities realist

I agree a recall and free ignition replacement may have been warranted in this case. I understand what key rings are for, I was just making the point that perhaps some of these key rings were so overloaded to the point of not being reasonable, such that GM would not have anticipated this problem. As I said before, GM's lack of addressing this problem when it was discovered is unacceptable, and I regret the loss of life that occurred.

mlouiswolf

This is actually the best article that I have seen on this topic. We have had a cobalt in the family for a long time. It's the little beater, that starts whenever we need it to, gets good gas mileage and has decent performance as long as there is only one person in it. It took it out last week and confirmed that "yes" it will turn off absurdly easy when the keychain is give a slight tug. It has a soft gate and the key sits at near flat so that a heavy keychain has a lot of leverage to twist the key.
Also against it, the power steering is very heavy without the power assist. Even at freeway speed it is a handful to steer when the power is shut off. I was surprised. I've driven model A's and old pick-ups with manual steering and this is much hard to steer.

So the ignition switch is a bad design and the power steering is over-reliant on electronics. This would be true of all fly-by-wire set-ups which are getting to be the norm these days.

I have trouble faulting GM as much as some want to. If it was a bad fuel system or computer that shut the car off would it be blamed as the cause whewre only 29 deaths might be ascribed to it over a period 13 years and over a million vehicles...probably not. Nobody would probably even connect the dots.

I especially have trouble with the "Crucify GM" chants when this is a training issue. If my car dies, my reaction is going to be: Throw it in neutral and try to restart it. I've brought this up with a number of people and quite a few have seemed clueless that their car would even start in neutral. One woman I know recently threw her low-speed, rolling car into Park when she went to restart it. Drivers need to be better trained in an emergency.

Also comparing this to the Pinto issue is kind of silly. No amount of training or awareness would have saved those Pinto drivers.

Mystic Michael

Please see my reply to TCR (above). It is NOT a "training issue". Customers who are willing and able to operate a motor vehicle under ordinary conditions, according to the ways in which the vehicle was designed to be operated, should not be required to undergo additional "training" in order to protect themselves from the defects of the vehicle that they purchased in good faith, believing that it would operate effectively & safely. The phrase "the customer is always right" never had a greater ring of truth than it does in such a situation as this.

mlouiswolf

I couldn't disagree more. If you are driving down the road at 70mph, you have a responsibility to operate your car in a competent manner. If you can't keep it together for the 3 to 5 seconds it takes to you restart your car....brother, you ain't competent.

Again, 13 to 29 deaths out of 1.2 million cars over a 14 year period. Those are low numbers.

Tri-cities realist

Beware of Lanivan attempting to berate you for your apparent callousness to the deaths of young drivers. Don't worry I'm pretty sure we both regret the loss of life, we just can recognize that you need to dig a little deeper to analyze a complex situation.

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