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Petition prompts NHTSA inquiry into Impala air bags

The U.S. government’s highway safety agency has decided to seek further information from General ­Motors about air bag failures in some Chevrolet Impalas.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began an inquiry into the issue after receiving a petition from Donald Friedman of Xprts LLC, a Santa Barbara, Cal­i­fornia, company that examines crashes.

Friedman examined an April 2011 car crash in Hidalgo County, Texas, that severely injured Roberto Martinez. His wife, Aurora, was driving their 2008 Impala when it was hit on the passenger side by an SUV and was forced into a concrete high­way divider. The passenger air bags didn’t deploy, and Roberto suffered permanent brain injuries, according to a lawsuit filed against GM. He died 10 months later.

Friedman alleges that because Martinez was bounced around in the crash, the weight sensor in the passenger seat misread his weight and didn’t fire the air bag. The air bag is supposed to inflate for anyone other than a child or small adult. Friedman says the cars should be recalled and the computers reprogrammed.

The petition says GM used the same system in other models from 2004 through 2010. The inquiry, which is not a formal investigation, covers about 320,000 Impalas from the 2007-09 model years.

GM, which has an Allen County truck assembly plant, may be getting greater scrutiny from NHTSA after the automaker admitted knowing about a deadly ignition switch problem in some of its older small cars for more than a decade, yet it didn’t recall them until this year. Eventually, the company recalled 2.6 million cars for that problem.

Friedman said Friday that even though the Martinez lawsuit was settled two years ago, he filed the petition so the government would address the problem.

“It seemed to me that it was an important thing to get in front of NHTSA and have the other vehicles that could have had the same defect taken care of,” he said.

Although NHTSA’s inquiry so far hasn’t found any defects, the agency said it will seek more data from GM “in an abundance of caution.” GM said it will cooperate.