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Chevrolet Impala also suffers from airbag glitch, former GM researcher claims

Safety watchdog points to 143 fatal front-impact crashes with non-deployed airbags.

A safety watchdog group is attempting to raise awareness over what it claims is a widespread defect in the airbag system utilized by Chevrolet Impala sedans with model years ranging from 2003 through 2010.

In a petition sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's office of defect investigation, former GM researcher Don Friedman argues that General Motors has used a flawed algorithm in its airbag controllers.

The engineer suggests the system does not properly average its occupant-weight data when determining if the airbags should be deployed. In certain cases, the computer is said to consider an instantaneous measurement after the occupants' weight may have already begun to shift off the seat following impact. The system consequently misinterprets an adult occupant as a child and disables the airbag.

To exemplify his point, Friedman references a fatal accident in which an elderly couple -- each weighing approximately 170 pounds -- inadvertently entered a construction site with their 2008 Impala and struck a fixed barrier at 27 mph. Data records show that the driver airbag was properly deployed but the passenger airbag was inhibited as if the occupant was a smaller, lighter adult.

"Using a weight averaged over a few tens of seconds would have avoided suppressing the airbag and the resulting serious injury and fatality," the petition notes. "Since the control module is field programmable a simple recall and modifying a few lines of code can avoid repeat occurrences."

Center for Auto Safety executive director Clarence Ditlow suggests there have been 143 fatalities in Chevrolet Impalas between 2000 and 2010 in frontal-impact crashes in which the airbags failed to deploy. Nearly 100 of the victims were wearing their seat belts at the time of the crash.

"The Center is deeply troubled that NHTSA once again may have missed an advanced airbag [problem] like it did with the Cobalt," Ditlow wrote in a letter to the NHTSA. "The Center is even more troubled that once again NHTSA has kept whatever it is doing secret behind closed doors even though there is a specific legal requirement for NHTSA to make its activities public."

During the congressional hearings related to the ignition-switch recall, NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman noted that the agency is taking a closer look at airbag deployment algorithms across the industry to find any potential safety problems. The agency has yet to force a recall of the allegedly defective Chevrolet Impalas, however.

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