(USATODAY.com) - A study commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety found that 303 people were killed in crashes of now-recalled General Motors vehicles where the airbags did not deploy, according to a report in the New York Times.
The Washington, D.C.-based, watchdog group commissioned Friedman Research to comb the federal auto Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) for deaths in two of the recalled models, the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2003-07 Saturn Ion. The accident analysis firm looked for non-rear impact crashes in which the bags did not deploy, the Times reported.
The data is expected to be used as part of the auto safety group's effort to convince Congress in upcoming hearings enough evidence was available to both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to spot a deadly trend much sooner.
The two vehicles and four other models were recalled in the U.S. last month, but documents filed with NHTSA show that there were problem reports and consumer complaints dating to 2001.
The Center has said it believes not only that GM could have taken action sooner, but also that NHTSA was not aggressive enough in investigating the complaints and policing the automaker.
GM has reported to NHTSA 31 crashes and 12 deaths linked specifically to the recall. The cars have a faulty ignition switch that can unintentionally move out of the "run" positions, shutting off the engine and disabling the airbags.
The FARS data, where the count of 303 originates, according to the Times report, is based on accident reports at the scene by state and local police agencies and generally is considered raw information that needs more analysis.
For example, NHTSA files show only 87 complaints involving the recalled GM vehicles in the "stall" category. No deaths are among those. And half the models the car company recalled have no complaints involving the car stalling, according to an analysis by USA TODAY.
Death counts can be misleading in the midst of a recall. During the Toyota sudden acceleration recall in 2009 and 2010, a widely reported death toll topped 100. But once the government investigated all of the reports, only five deaths were tied to unexpected acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
Contributing: Paul Overberg, Fred Meier