putting ignition switch deaths into perspective

There’s been a lot of hoopla in the news about GM’s ignition switch problem.

These defective (or at least less than wholly effective) ignition switches are in 2.5 million GM cars & light trucks.  Over the last 10 years, they have caused dozens of crashes, resulting in the deaths of 13 people.

That’s 13 deaths in 10 years – barely 1 per year.

While every death is a tragedy for the family it touches, let’s put these things into perspective, because – seriously – Congress especially is the tail wagging the dog here.

Should GM be held accountable?  Yes.  Should GM’s *new* CEO who most likely knew exactly nothing about this issue or its coverup be forced to sit through TWO DAYS of grilling by incompetent Congressmen and women?  No.  This is a clear case of Congress wanting to appear concerned about the American people. Since they can’t accomplish anything meaningful, they are desperate to look like they’re doing something, so they’re excoriating a business executive for something she had nothing to do with.  When it’s all over, Congress will have done nothing but waste time and bandwidth – as usual.

Here’s the money aspect:  nearly everybody agrees that a corrected ignition switch costs $0.57.  That times 2.5 million instances is a mere $1.42 million.  That comes out to $109,230 per death – and no doubt in the upcoming lawsuits and settlements, GM is going to pay each family significantly more than that.

To be 100% realistic about it, though, the recall repairs for these ignition switches is going to cost significantly more than the $0.57 for the part.  I don’t know if you’ve ever replaced an ignition switch in a car, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do even in an old, shitty car.  In a modern car with tons of technology & electronics, it’s a daunting task that starts with having to remove the steering wheel.  Do you know how to remove a steering wheel?  No, and that’s why you go to the dealer for the recall.  I’ve replaced the ignition switch in a light truck (Chevy S-10) and in a motorcycle – and both times it was a pretty significant pain in the ass to do.  Shop rates at the GM dealers I called range from $94 to $102/hr.  Figure that a skilled mechanic can do the ignition switch swap in an hour.  At $94/hr for 2.5 million cars, that’s a labor charge of $235 million.  That’s a shitload of money, but still pales in comparison to what GM made in profits in 2010 – less than 1%, actually, of the profit from that year.* (See the next section for that info.)

If you look at GM’s profit just for 2010, they made $26.9 billion.  $1.42 million is a drop in the bucket compared to that, no doubt about it.  Even $5 or $10 million is nothing compared to $26 billion.

The money is clearly not the whole story and not where we’re getting the much-needed perspective, so let’s look at some other numbers – road deaths.

We’ll look at the 10 years between 2003 and 2012, inclusive.  In that time period, 383,835 Americans died in traffic collisions (all causes).  The lowest number of deaths-per-year in that time period was in 2011 – 32,367.  I’m using 2010 (32,885 deaths) as my year of comparison for this piece because that’s the latest year I could find statistics for everything I wanted to compare.

If you compare 13 deaths to the 2010 number of 32,885, 13 is 0.03% of that – a minuscule proportion.  That’s actually not an apt comparison, because we’re comparing the total number of ignition switch deaths to just one year of road deaths, but let’s overlook that discrepancy at this point.

In 2010, 10,228 people died due to drunk driving-related crashes.  That is 31% of the total number of road deaths in 2010.  NEARLY ONE-THIRD of road deaths in ONE YEAR were caused by drunk driving.  One year.

They say that texting while driving is six times more likely to cause a crash than drunk driving.  That is a staggering concept.

My point is this: stop crying about ignition switches.  GM will fix them, GM will pay the families of the dead and injured, and we’ll move on to the next media-manufactured American crisis.  In the meantime, thousands of people are dying because of drunk driving and even more likely due to distracted driving caused by cell phone and other electronics (GPS, entertainment systems) use while driving.  Instead of crying about ignition switches, DO SOMETHING MEANINGFUL TO REDUCE THE NUMBER OF OTHERWISE PREVENTABLE DEATHS FROM DRUNK AND DISTRACTED DRIVING.  Nothing will bring those 13 people back, and that’s sad.  As a society, though, we can stop obsessing about small stuff and address larger issues and make some real, meaningful progress towards reducing the number of people who get killed on the road every year.

Ignition switches aren’t the problem here. Hell, they’re not even a symptom.  There have been 31 murders in Washington, D.C. so far this year – just in the first quarter.  That’s double the number of people that died from these ignition switches in 10 whole years.  There are more and way bigger issues we, as a society, need to deal with before we should be paying this much attention to ignition switches.




* Updated to reflect and correct my previous estimate of what it would cost to physically replace all 2.5 million of these switches under the recall.


2 thoughts on “putting ignition switch deaths into perspective

  1. I think the point you overlook is:

    Yes, the cost to replace the ignition switch is much higher than $0.57.

    However, if the safe ignition switches had been installed originally, instead of the ones that were apparently known to be substandard, the cost would have been $0.57

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