Since the federal government first made automobile safety a national concern, the American auto industry has been kicking and screaming in its attempts to avoid accountability. The auto industry's record of addressing safety issues is marked by attempts to delay, block and obfuscate impending safety standards.
Furthermore, the industry's history is teaming with back-room dealing, unconvincing denials, false pleas of innocence and misleading claims of ignorance. This is an issue of public safety. The number and severity of auto accidents could be drastically reduced if the American auto industry would make safety "job one".
In 1965, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed" and the automobile safety debate went public. Nader illustrated how little effort went into designing cars that were better able to withstand accidents. For the first time, the public learned of the auto industry's total disregard for the issue of safety in their designs.
The public was shocked and appalled by the American auto industry's lack of concern for the issue of occupant safety. Congress quickly began holding highly publicized hearings to find solutions to this problem. These hearings eventually led to the passage of many statues regarding the issue of motor vehicle safety.
In 1966, President Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. It required the government to come up with safety standards for new vehicles. The Act developed the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and then established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
These agencies were implemented to develop and enforce the new auto safety standards. This was a good, yet slow start. As a result, the concept of crashworthiness was developed.
Crashworthiness is the ability of a vehicle to withstand a collision or crash with minimal bodily injury to its occupants. Crashworthiness features are technologies designed to mitigate the injury potential of a crash. They aim to minimize occupant injury, prevent ejection from the vehicle, and reduce the risk of fire.
Crashworthiness features include, but are not limited to: seat belts, airbags, crumple zones and safer fuel storage.
During an accident there are two collision events. The "first collision" is between the vehicle and another object during which the vehicle's kinetic energy dissipates. The "second collision" is between the occupants' and the vehicle's interior or other external objects.
Crashworthiness deals primarily with the "second collision" in which the occupants collide against the interior of the vehicle. An effective crashworthy vehicle design will distribute these forces over as great a period of time, distance and area as possible, reducing potential injuries.
The battle for improved crashworthiness has continued for over 40 years. It began in the 1960's with the implementation of FMVSS and NHTSA and continues into the present. History shows that NHTSA has continually underperformed and FMVSS have been continually too low due to pressures and clout put on by the American auto industry.
In December of 1966, Henry Ford II held a press conference in Detroit to display a full size model of what a car would look like if it had to meet the newly proposed safety standards presented by NHTSA. The model was designed to make the newly proposed rules appear ridiculous. It featured oversized round objects covering window cranks and other pointy objects. There were shoulder harnesses displayed with yards of material.
The model was an extreme exaggeration intended to put pressure on the new agencies to back down. Henry Ford II went on to inform reporters that the new rules were "unreasonable" and "technically unfeasible." He wanted to make a threat directed toward the newly appointed agency, NHTSA and the Johnson administration, that Ford Motor Co. may be forced to shut down if the proposed safety standards were implemented, indicating that the standards were not economically feasible.
This is just one example of the auto industry's misleading nature. Henry Ford II was attempting to sway the policy makers' decisions to implement new safety standard by making misleading claims that the new standards were unrealistic.
Profit is the central issue behind the auto industry's willful disregard for safety. Unfortunately, this is no surprise. There have been numerous occasions, since the beginning of safety standards, when certain manufacturers had the technology available to produce safer vehicles.
However, due to slightly higher costs, they chose to maximize their profits rather than incorporating this safety technology. They would rather add more horsepower, stereo systems and fancy wheels rather than safety technology.
The development of the airbag goes back to the 1950's, by General Motors, Ford and Eaton Corporation. Even though there was nothing preventing these car companies from installing airbags on their own, they were persistent in refusing to install them in their vehicles.
Consequently, in 1969, the Nixon administration proposed passive restraints in cars to protect unbelted occupants and in 1970, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration implemented Nixon's proposal and ordered that passive restraints (such as automatic seat belts or airbags) exist in all 1974 and newer model year cars.
American car companies strongly resisted the new minimum safety standards and were able to effectively delay their implementation for almost 20 years. How many lives could have been saved in those twenty years? How many catastrophic injuries would have been prevented? Yes, the American auto makers did whatever they could to keep from having to implement minimum safety standards.
Through intense lobbying in Washington, the pending requirement for airbags was politically shelved and languished in limbo into the later 1980's. Top officials (such as Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II) from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler earned their own controversial place in the history of Watergate during a secret meeting with President Nixon on April 27, 1971. Lee Iacocca didn't know he was being taped that day. "You can see," he declared, "that safety has really killed all our business... What safety is doing to us is gonna make inflation."
The bargaining by these auto industry officials resulted in an extensive delay and eventual reduction of minimum requirements for numerous proposed FMVSS. It was not until 1983, in a United States Supreme Court decision that forced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to re-examine their latest passive restraint cancellation that the rulemaking process began again.
The NHTSA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) responded with a 1984 plan to link mandatory buckle-up laws to a decision about requiring airbags. This is just one example of how the auto industry has used political clout to bypass new safety standards.
Accident victims continue to endure unnecessary injury and death due to some auto manufacturers' poor design, engineering and manufacturing of their vehicles. The American auto industry has a history of deceit and disregard for public safety.
Car companies must be held accountable for their inactions. Auto manufacturers should be taking a leadership role in motor vehicle safety and some, like some of the European manufacturers, have. Those manufacturers that fail to manufacturer reasonably safe vehicles must be held accountable to those who suffer because of the negligence in the manufactures priority setting.
My friends reading this article know I have a high horsepower vehicle with a great stereo system and very fancy wheels, my "dream car" since I was in middle school. However, after researching and writing these articles for my father's law firm, I am selling my "dream car". I want safety, reliability, economy and environmental friendly, in my next car. What I see now is, even as a pre-driver, I was influenced not by what is safe, practical and environmentally sound but by power, speed, style, comfort and "looking good".
John Bisnar is a partner at Newport Beach Personal Injury Law Firm Bisnar Chase. The Bisnar Chase law firm has dedicated their practice to victims of serious injuries due to defective products, negligence and malpractice.