DETROIT (AP) — 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, 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.”