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Auto Safety Group Calls for Investigation on Chevy Impala Airbag Flaw

April 8, 2014

General Motors has already recalled 2.6 million vehicles due to defective ignition switches, but now it seems like the automaker will have to consider recalling more—but for another reason. This is because an auto safety group believes that there is an airbag defect in the model year 2003 to 2010 Chevrolet Impala cars and that it is connected to the fatal accidents where the said car is involved. The group is calling for an investigation on the matter.

The Center for Auto Safety sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), saying that the algorithm or computer code responsible for the deployment of air bags in a an accident may cause the air bag to not be deployed in the event the occupant bounced in his or her seat prior to the accident.

Air bags will not deploy when the weight of the occupant is less than a specific amount. Even if the occupant is wearing a seatbelt, a bouncing motion can reduce the weight determined by the seat sensor connected to the air bag algorithm.

According to the Washington-based center, there have been 143 fatalities in front-impact crashes that involve the model year 2000 to 2010 Chevy Impalas. In all these cases, the air bags did not deploy. In 98 of them, the occupants were wearing seatbelts.

The group noted that it included the 2000 to 2002 models in the crash data because it believes some of the cars also have the flawed algorithm.

In the letter, the group calls on the NHTSA to investigate. “We call on NHTSA to examine each of the fatal non-deployment crashes to determine whether the air bag should have deployed and why it didn’t,” Executive Director Clarence Ditlow wrote in the letter.

In the letter, Ditlow cited Donald Friedman of Xprts LLC as the one who discovered the problem with the algorithm.

Friedman is a former General Motors researcher who helped in the turnover of the automaker’s technology to Lunar Rover. He has been a consultant in product liability cases for the past 3 decades.

He was hired by the lawyers of the family of Aurora Martinez to look into the Mission Hidalgo County, Texas car crash that she was involved in. On April 9, 2011, Martinez and her husband Roberto were riding her 2008 Impala when they were hit on the passenger side by an SUV. The sedan went over a road barrier before hitting another one.

Roberto, who was on the passenger side, died. The airbag on that side did not deploy.

During his investigation, Friedman discovered that the airbag failed to deploy because the system recognized Roberto Martinez as a small adult. This is despite the fact that he weighed 170 pounds. Friedman learned that the bouncing of the car caused the sensor to misread the occupant’s weight.

The NHTSA has yet to comment on the matter. However, the agency has been in touch with Friedman after he filed a government petition about the software defect. NHTSA has asked him to submit data and pictures related to his findings.

Meanwhile, GM promises to cooperate with the agency regarding this issue.

“We will, of course, cooperate with NHTSA if it determines any further action is needed regarding this petition,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

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