Study Links 303 Deaths to Faulty GM Parts

A consumer advocacy group focused on auto safety says crash data examined by the group revealed that many more fatalities occurred as a result of failing airbags in General Motor (NYSE:GM) cars than the auto maker has acknowledged.

The Center for Auto Safety released a letter sent to federal regulators in which it claims 303 deaths were caused by malfunctions in GM models that have since been recalled by the company.

What’s more, the advocacy group said its findings only focused on two of six car models  recalled by GM since the issue came to light. If the other models were included in the study, the number of deaths would have been even higher, the Center for Auto Safety stated.

GM, which earlier conceded 12 deaths in connection with a defect in an ignition switch, has  refuted the group’s findings.

“Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions,” GM said in a statement. “In contrast, research is underway at GM and the investigation of the ignition switch recall and the impact of the defective switch is ongoing.”

The controversy surrounding the recall and its potential liability are hammering GM's stock. GM shares have fallen 10.2% this week, the steepest weekly drop in almost 2 1/2 years. The stock rose 0.18% in mid-morning trading Friday.

GM has recalled six models for ignition switch malfunctions: 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5; the 2003-07 Saturn Ions; the 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs; the 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice; and the 2007 Saturn Sky. In all, 1.6 million vehicles were recalled to fix defective parts.

GM said the cars were recalled because airbags could be disabled if the ignition switch was somehow bumped while the car was in motion. The Detroit-based car maker initially said 13 deaths were related to the faulty parts, but later lowered that number to 12.

The Center for Auto Safety sifted through data gathered by the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System related to the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and the 2003-07 Saturn Ion.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center, criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not evaluating the danger earlier and demanding recalls.

“NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers. As the agency has done in past investigations, special investigation teams should have been sent out to acquire more information on the crashes found in FARS and determine in which ones the airbag did not deploy due to the ignition key defect,” he wrote in a letter to the federal safety agency.

Questions over when GM knew of the problem and the timing of its response have prompted investigations by Congressional committees, as well as a federal probe by the Justice Department.

The controversy has consumed the early tenure of new GM Chief Executive Mary T. Barra, who has ordered an internal review of how the problem was handled within GM and hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct the investigation.