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By Ryan McNeill and Paul Lienert
June 2 (Reuters) - At least 74 people have died in General Motors cars in accidents with some key similarities to those that GM has linked to 13 deaths involving defective ignition switches, a Reuters analysis of government fatal-crash data has determined. Such accidents also occurred at a higher rate in the GM cars than in top competitors' models, the analysis showed.
Reuters searched the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a national database of crash information submitted by local law-enforcement agencies, for single-car frontal collisions where no front air bags deployed and the driver or front-seat passenger was killed.
The news agency compared the incidence of this kind of deadly accident in the Chevrolet Cobalt and the Saturn Ion, the highest-profile cars in GM's recall of 2.6 million cars with defective switches, against the records of three popular small-car competitors: Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The analysis found that the frequency of such accidents in the Ion was nearly six times that of the Corolla and twice that of the Focus. The Ion had 5.9 such fatal crashes per 100,000 cars sold, followed by the Cobalt, with 4.1, the Ford Focus with 2.9, the Civic with 1.6, and the Corolla with 1.0.
It is not clear how many of the deadly accidents identified by Reuters involved defective ignition switches, because crash reports typically do not include that data. That leaves open the possibility that air bags may have failed to deploy in some of the GM crashes for reasons other than faulty switches.
GM, which has offered few details of the fatal crashes related to faulty switches, told Reuters it derived the tally of 13 deaths from claims and lawsuits filed against the automaker. GM checked those claims and lawsuits against other sources available to it, including vehicle data recorders recovered from some crashes.
The Reuters analysis relied on the FARS database, which encompasses a much wider universe of accidents. GM declined to say whether it had used information from the federal database.
Reuters disclosed its findings in detail to GM and federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). GM declined to comment on Reuters' findings or methodology, responding only that: "Our focus is on doing the right thing for customers - fixing the recalled vehicles as quickly as possible, addressing our civic and legal responsibilities and setting a new industry standard for safety."
NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman told Reuters: "The final death toll associated with this safety defect is not known to NHTSA, but we believe it's likely that more than 13 lives were lost."
Toyota and Honda declined to comment. Ford said it took issue with the Reuters findings concerning the Focus, but didn't specify its reasons.
GM engineers first encountered problems with the switches in 2001, a year before the first Ion went into production. The faulty GM ignition switches could cause engines to shut off while driving, leading to a sudden loss of power steering and power brakes, and the failure of air bags to deploy in a crash.
Managers subsequently considered, then rejected several proposals to repair or replace the switches because of the extra cost, GM told NHTSA and congressional investigators. The automaker did not begin recalling the cars until February 2014, after a two-and-a-half-year internal investigation. Eventually, GM recalled every Ion and Cobalt built from model years 2003 to 2010. Reuters used those model years for its analysis.
Using the FARS database of crashes reported to U.S. safety regulators between 2003 and 2012, Reuters identified 45 front-seat fatalities in the Cobalt and 29 in the Ion. In similar crashes, there were 44 fatalities in the Ford Focus, 41 in the Honda Civic and 24 in the Toyota Corolla.
Reuters found the Focus had 43 fatal accidents, the Cobalt had 42, the Civic had 39, the Ion had 28 and the Corolla had 24. While the raw crash numbers appear comparable, the rate of deadly crashes was higher in the two GM models, as the Ford, Honda and Toyota models sold in substantially greater numbers. (Graphic: http://link.reuters.com/vas69v)
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit safety research group connected with the U.S. insurance industry, reviewed the Reuters analysis. David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer, said: "Your crash rates suggest that Cobalt and Ion are less crashworthy than the other models for which you've computed similar statistics," and are similar to those in a 2011 IIHS analysis.
Zuby added that there were several limitations to the analysis, noting that "while your analysis does focus on circumstances that are similar to the cases involving GM air bags that failed to deploy because of the ignition switch problem, it cannot be said definitively that the ignition switch problem" caused 74 deaths.
It is possible, Zuby said, that limitations in the data examined by Reuters may overstate the number of deaths attributable to air bag non-deployment in the car models examined.
Those limitations include the fact that there are other reasons why air bags may not deploy in a frontal crash, such as a car sliding under a truck. Air bag defects unrelated to the ignition switch could cause a failure to deploy, he said, and air bags are designed not to deploy in some situations, such as where the passenger is a child. Zuby also noted that an Insurance Institute study showed the FARS database overstated the problem of air bag non-deployments.
That means the number of fatalities from the Reuters analysis is probably inflated, he said. However, the problems would not affect one model more than another, he added.
At the same time, there are other ways in which the Reuters tally may undercount switch-related fatalities in the GM models. The FARS crash data runs only through 2012, and Reuters did not include two fatalities of backseat passengers.
The fatalities entered in the FARS database and reviewed by Reuters do not include at least five of the 13 deaths acknowledged by GM. One died in 2013, past the range of the current FARS data, and two died in a multi-car accident.
Another, Amber Marie Rose, was killed in the July 2005 single-car crash of her 2005 Cobalt in Maryland. GM has confirmed that Rose is among the 13 victims, and investigators hired by NHTSA said her air bag did not deploy. But the FARS data indicates that the air bag did deploy and her death isn't included in the Reuters count. (Additional reporting by Marilyn Thompson; editing By Peter Henderson)