Did One Man Really Spur GM’s Defective Airbag Sensor Recall?

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In mid-December 2016, GM launched an investigation into potentially defective airbag seat sensors. Just four days later, the company shared preliminary results with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). By early to mid-January 2017, representatives from NHTSA and GM had met apparently to discuss a potential vehicle recall. On January 17, 2017, GM approved a recall to address the airbag sensor problem.

On one hand, this process to recall would seem to be the polar opposite to that of the GM ignition switch problem due to the apparent rapidity at which it moved through the process. However, despite the account of the recall set forth above, the process actually dragged on for years before the recall was ordered. In fact, the data gathering and research that served as the foundation for the recall started nearly a decade earlier and were, largely, conducted by private individuals. In fact, Automotive News has characterized this process as “How one man triggered a GM recall.

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While this type of characterization does lend itself to telling a story about a supremely gifted individual, this type of approach tends to minimize the numerous important contributions of other individuals and agencies. While Troy Lyman, as identified by Automotive News, certainly made significant and essential contributions to the process, it is important to also recognize the others who played a role in the process. At a time where the sheer volume of data is often overwhelming, it is important that information is assessed, reviewed, and characterized in a meaningful way. This goal is most likely to be accomplished when third parties who may make minor, but nonetheless important, contributions understand the importance of their actions.

What Is the Purpose of an Airbag Seat Sensor?

This potential defect concerned airbag sensors which are typically located in the front passenger seat of a vehicle. The sensors are designed to detect when a child or other individual to whom an airbag deployment may be dangerous is present in the seat. Generally, the sensors are calibrated to deactivate the airbag and prevent deployment when the passenger weighs less than 110 pounds.

However, when the sensor fails, it means that airbags will not be activated and deactivated as intended. Most commonly, the airbag will become stuck in the off position. Therefore, when an adult or another individual who would be protected by an airbag in a crash is present, the airbag may nevertheless fail to activate. This typically results in the passenger sustaining more serious injuries or even fatal injuries when a crash does occur.

What Contributions to the Recall Process Did Other Parties Make?

The path to recall began long before Lyman became involved in the process. The first signs that there was a problem presented themselves in 2006. At that time, several dealerships repaired issues with broken seat sensors and at least one lemon law attorney filed suit for a refund due to unexplained and unresolved airbag sensor problems. One auto repair shop owner who was interviewed for the Auto News article stated that “[GM] told us that they couldn’t figure out what was going on with it, they’d buy it back from us,” and “Don’t buy another one.”

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By mid-2008, many owners of the vehicle had begun reporting problems online at popular web forums like SkyRoadster.com. In mid-2013 a frequent poster and fellow 2008 Solstice owner, Mark Quinn, decided to get to the bottom of the problem. As an electrical engineer, Quinn was uniquely equipped to diagnose the point of failure on the sensor.

Quinn was able to track down a failed sensor mat from another user on the forum. Upon receipt of the mat, Quinn noted a problem in the U-shaped bend that connected the sensors. Quinn stated, “There was this stress point at the back of the mat. Constant sitting basically broke it. It was obviously a design issue. It wasn’t up to the stress of people constantly getting up and sitting down. And it’s a safety issue clearly.” Over time, additional owners confirmed Quinn’s findings.

Later in 2013, a Connecticut man sent a complaint letter to NHTSA and GM regarding the $1,200 repair bill to fix the failed sensor. Then, in November 2013, a Nashville-area television station focused on the problem finding 14 recalls across the industry since 2005 for failed passenger seat sensor mats. As of January 2014, an NHTSA spokesperson indicated that insufficient evidence existed to initiate a recall.

When Is “Wear and Tear” on Safety Systems Acceptable? When Is it a Defect Requiring a Recall?

Although the consumers had reached a point where they knew why the sensor failed, they still faced resistance to their desire to initiate a recall. For one, GM initially attempted to characterize the problem as one of “wear and tear” rather than a design defect. According to GM spokesperson Tom Wilkinson, “Just because a system is safety-related doesn’t mean it’s warrantied forever.” While Wilkinson states that there “ haven’t been consistent rulings on these sensor systems,” he also states that GM’s safety and field action team eventually decided to go ahead with the recall because, as a 2-seat vehicle, passengers could not avoid the risk by simply sitting in the back seat becasue one did not exist.

While Wilkinson may be right regarding sensor system rulings, it is essential to note that Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208 Occupant Crash Protection requires vehicles to come equipped with appropriate and effective airbag seat sensors and “tell-tale” displays to indicate when the system is deactivated or otherwise not engaged.

What Contributions Did Lyman Make?

Essentially Lyman’s role in the path to recall was bridging the gap between the knowledge that the sensor was failing and the belief that the cause of the failures was design-related and not simply due to “wear and tear.” As a moderator for a popular web forum catering to Solstice and Sky owners, Lyman had seen complaints for years. In early 2016, Lyman apparently became fed up with inaction by GM and NHTSA and began to compile data.

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After several months of work, Lyman submitted a 67-page report to NHTSA in the spring of 2016. The report compiled already existing information drawn from consumer complaints, publicly available GM warranty data, and other information. However, the true value in Lyman’s work was putting the data together in an intelligible manner that, in itself, told a story of a safety defect and not wear and tear. In fact, Lyman reported that he was told that, because of the manner in which he was able to organize and present the information, GM believed that he was a lawyer for a client affected by the defect.

In all, Lyman identified and documented 381 incidents of sensor-mat failures in the vehicles. This  surpassed the numbers required to trigger an earlier 2010 recall for faulty airbag sensors in the Cadillac CTS. Presented with this and other information, NHTSA opened an investigation in May 2016.  As set forth above, NHTSA and GM agreed to a recall (17V061000) of certain 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice and 2007-2010 Saturn Sky vehicles by the end of January 2017.

What Lessons Can We Draw from the Path to the Airbag Sensor Recall?

This airbag sensor situation reveals several important lessons regarding vehicle and highway safety. To start, owners of cars and trucks should realize that companies, government regulators, and other third-parties may not have the resources to oversee every potential safety issue. In fact, government regulators are highly dependent upon consumer reports and complaints. When consumers are unwilling to engage in the process and go on the record regarding certain defects, the work of regulators becomes much more difficult.

Therefore, it is important for drivers with safety concerns to be aware of and avoid the negative consequences of the “bystander effect.” That is, when people believe that there are several or many other individuals who could make a report or take other corrective actions, people have a tendency to believe that others will take the initiative. More often than not, this means that most or all parties fail to engage in mitigating or corrective actions. When applied to the context of potential vehicle safety defects, this means that significantly fewer or no vehicles owners file a complaint or take action to address the larger safety concern. Even one complaint can make a difference towards achieving a recall or other action to correct a vehicle defect.

Finally, it is essential that we recognize that the “information age” we currently enjoy is often characterized by too much of a good thing:  information. Today, we often struggle to place the raw data gathered from an array of disparate sources into an understandable context. While this is a problem in any data-driven industry, the importance of meeting the challenge of information overload is especially apparent in this situation. While his work was built on the efforts of others, the manner in which Lyman was able to compile the data made clear that the problem was design-based and not simply a matter of wear and tear.

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This just happens to be part of and similar to the type of work that a personal injury attorney performs when he or she is looking to present a case to a jury. Simply overwhelming jurors and a judge with raw data that they do not know how to contextualize is of little value to any party. Rather, a lawyer will ensure that important findings, trends, statistics, and other information are presented in a manner that makes sense and tells a story. This type of approach can sometimes make all the difference in getting a jury to understand the cause behind a defect and the factors that caused or failed to prevent an accident or injury.

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