DETROIT— 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.
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.
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.
Relatives of many who died will attend congressional hearings on the matter Tuesday and Wednesday. 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.
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. Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said many parents had the car title put in their names to reduce insurance costs.
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.
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.”
GM’s marketing 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.
In 2005, GM notified dealers that the cars could stall because of the ignition switches. But GM didn’t recall the cars, theorizing that people could still steer and brake without the power systems.
Steering stop brings recall
DETROIT — General Motors Co. said Monday it is recalling 1.5 million vehicles worldwide because the electronic power-steering assist can suddenly stop working, making them harder to steer.
The new recall brings to 6.3 million the number of vehicles GM has recalled since February. The initial recall — now at 2.6 million small cars for an ignition switch defect — prompted the automaker to name a new safety chief. GM said it expects recall-related costs to total $750 million in the first quarter, including $300 million for the ignition switch recall.
Included in the new recall are:
•Chevrolet Malibu from the 2004-2005 model years, plus some 2006, 2008 and 2009 model-year cars.
•Chevrolet Malibu Maxx from the 2004-2005 model years, plus some 2006 model-year cars.
•Chevrolet HHR from the 2009-2010 model years (nonturbocharged only).
•Some Chevrolet Cobalts from the 2010 model year.
•Some Saturn Auras from the 2008-2009 model years.
•Saturn Ion from the 2004-2007 model years.
•Pontiac G6 from the 2005 model year, plus some cars from the 2006, 2008 and 2009 model years.
GM says no deaths related to the defect have been reported.
Dealers will replace parts for free.