WASHINGTON Safety advocates say two recent fatal accidents involving recalled General Motors Co cars provide evidence that the automaker should advise owners to take vehicles off the road until they are repaired.
In both incidents airbags failed to deploy, which is one sign of an accident related to the faulty ignition switch behind GM's 2.6 million vehicle recall. Airbags can fail to deploy in other situations depending on the speed and angle of the impact and whether or not the car senses a passenger in the seat.
It is not known whether in either accident the key slipped from "run" to "accessory" position, which could indicate a faulty ignition switch.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which is probing GM's slow response in recalling the vehicles, said it is aware of these accidents but would not say whether it plans to launch a formal investigation into whether they were caused by ignition switch malfunctions.
GM said it would be inappropriate to link recent crashes to its recall of 2.6 million low-cost, small vehicles including the Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion. It also has not investigated the two incidents.
"Without extensive analysis or further investigation it is pure speculation to imply that an accident or injury involving a Cobalt was the result of a faulty ignition switch," said GM spokesman Greg Martin, who declined to comment on specific incidents.
The Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group, said the regulator should launch a probe.
"NHTSA did very little if anything before the recall so it's all the more reason to do an aggressive investigation after the recall," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in an interview this week. "Our advice to consumers is, 'park it now.'"
GM says that Chevy Cobalts and six other models recalled globally are safe to drive if the ignition key is used alone or on a light key chain. Due to the defect, the ignition switch can unexpectedly switch into the "accessory" mode when jostled or bumped.
In Texas, a federal judge is considering such evidence to decide whether the cars should be taken off the road until they are equipped with new ignition switches, and that decision is expected in the coming days.
On March 7, nearly a month after GM sent out the recall, 12-year-old Zyla Owens of Laurel, Mississippi, was killed when her mother's recalled Chevy Cobalt ran off the road. Owens was ejected from the car and died at the scene. The airbags did not deploy even as the car collided with a tree.
Owens' mother said she suddenly had trouble steering the car, Mississippi State Trooper Chris Walker, who was called to the scene, told Reuters. Other drivers of recalled vehicles have had similar complaints about difficulty steering.
It is not known if the key was turned away from the "on" position, and Owens' mother did not respond to calls by Reuters.
In a second fatal accident that has raised concerns, Lara Gass, 27, a third-year law student, was killed on March 19 when her recalled 2004 Saturn Ion rear-ended a semi-trailer truck in Augusta County, Virginia.
Gass' airbags did not deploy, according to attorney Bob Hilliard to whom Gass' parents have turned to investigate the accident. A witness in an affidavit supplied by Hilliard's firm also said the airbag was not deployed.
Gass' car caught fire in the accident, said Virginia State Trooper Ryan Martin who responded to the crash. Martin said he did not know the position of the key in the ignition.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal says these accidents like these in which airbags do not deploy show that the recalled vehicles should be parked for now.
"There is abundant evidence that these cars are risky to drive until they are repaired," Blumenthal said in an interview with Reuters this week.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Peter Henderson)