Advertisement

Upgrades on Auto Safety Standards Languish

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Efforts to strengthen vehicle safety standards have languished year after year because of lengthy delays, extremes of caution and shifting priorities within the nation’s traffic safety agency, an examination by The Times has found.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has acknowledged that a number of its standards are weak, out of date or fail to address important causes of traffic injuries and deaths. But fixing the problem has proved elusive. Critics of NHTSA say countless deaths have occurred as a result.

A Times review of government documents and court records going back 30 years revealed numerous examples:

* After 25 years of research and internal debate, NHTSA has yet to take effective action on vehicle rollovers, which killed an estimated 10,133 people on U.S. roads last year, the greatest toll in at least a decade.

Advertisement

* NHTSA has not substantively revised its standard for fuel tank safety in more than 25 years, despite the agency’s findings that thousands of deaths and injuries occur annually in fire-related crashes, and that the standard is ineffective.

* The agency has failed to upgrade its 30-year-old standard concerning head restraints, despite hundreds of thousands of injuries annually and billions of dollars of costs from whiplash.

* Bowing to the auto industry, NHTSA declined to set a minimum strength requirement for latches on rear lift gates of minivans, acting only after reports of 37 deaths of people ejected from the rear of the vans.

* The agency repeatedly rejected appeals to address the risk of people dying in locked automobile trunks, moving only after a string of deaths involving young children.

Advertisement

A review of NHTSA’s work over the decades reveals a common pattern: The agency identifies the need for a tougher standard, announces the planned revision in the Federal Register, and seeks comments from the auto industry and the public. But often, five, eight or 10 years later, the upgrade has yet to emerge from the bureaucratic mire. Other times, NHTSA concludes after years of work that a change would be unfeasible, or that it should devote its limited resources elsewhere.

Magnifying the impact of the delays on public safety are the long lead times auto makers usually get to comply once a tougher standard is adopted.

Officials at NHTSA, which has described highway casualties as “the neglected epidemic of our society,” refused to make senior officials available to be interviewed for this article. They said the agency will stand on its record of helping to achieve dramatic gains in highway safety.

41,000 People Died on the Roads in ’99

Advertisement

The agency noted in a prepared statement that highway death rates have fallen from a high of 5.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled during the 1970s to about 1.6 deaths per 100 million miles today.

This is the “single, meaningful measure of the effectiveness of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” the statement said.

Safety experts note, however, that nearly all the improvement occurred during the 1970s and ‘80s, with limited progress since.

Indeed, after topping out at 54,589 in 1972, U.S. traffic deaths fell to 39,250 in 1992, but then began to rise again. An estimated 41,611 people were killed and 3.2 million injured in traffic collisions last year. A key category of fatal accidents--rollovers--is on the rise. And federal statistics show that highway accidents continue to cause one-fifth of all deaths of children under age 15, and one-third of fatalities among 15- to 24-year-olds.

Advertisement

For their part, auto makers say they are taking the lead in safety, and moving ahead with side air bags and other safety advances without being required to by NHTSA.

The agency administers more than 50 vehicle standards covering lights to brakes to door latches, most of them adopted about 30 years ago. Some merely codified prevailing design practices of the auto industry, and were expected to be strengthened over time. Yet a number of key rules have never undergone substantive revision, despite research by NHTSA and others that found them seriously flawed.

Other regulations have not kept pace with changes in technology or fundamental trends in the vehicle market. For example, when the recall of millions of Firestone tires was announced last month, NHTSA officials acknowledged that the federal tire standard was adopted decades ago before radials replaced bias-ply tires.

And NHTSA has had little success in establishing new standards to deal with dangers long ignored by the current rules--such as the rising toll of deaths and paralyzing injuries from rollover accidents.

Advertisement

Agency Faces a Difficult Task

In some cases, the low threshold set by weak standards has made it harder for NHTSA to perform one of its other critical duties: determining if vehicles are defective and need to be recalled, records and interviews show.

Critics acknowledge that NHTSA has achieved some life-saving advances in vehicle standards, but usually when Congress or some crisis--such as the Firestone tire disaster--forces it to act.

“There are issues, like rollover, that they [at NHTSA] have taken inexcusable lengths of time to move on,” said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health and insurance groups based in Washington.

Advertisement

“NHTSA’s ability to put out controversial rules--or rules that the auto industry does not agree with--is very limited,” remarked Chuck Hurley, head of the National Safety Council’s highway safety group.

To be sure, strengthening vehicle standards is a difficult task. On top of the technical complexities, NHTSA faces the powerful resistance of auto makers to any encroachment on their freedom to determine vehicle designs.

But critics also blame a lack of leadership at NHTSA. And they say agency assertiveness and morale have been sapped by perennially lean budgets and the lack of a strong base of support in Congress--which often takes the industry’s side in conflicts with the agency.

Although the occasional crisis, such as the tire recall, seizes attention, observers say congressional interest in vehicle safety has been episodic and short-lived.

Advertisement

“There are very few members in the House and Senate who care deeply about auto safety these days,” Hurley said. And in the current anti-regulatory climate, he said, no one “is looking at more things for government to do.”

Falling Budgets, Smaller Staffs

Indeed, NHTSA seems to fit the model of smaller, less intrusive government that has been in favor since the Reagan administration. The agency’s current budget of $367 million represents a 36% decrease from 1980, the last year of the Carter administration, when adjusted for inflation. And, 20 years ago, the agency had 103 people on its rule-making staff. Today there are 62, including some engaged in non-safety programs.

“NHTSA tends . . . to be a fire brigade,” said Donald Friedman, an automotive engineer and consultant who has worked as an NHTSA contractor. “With budgets the way they have them now, the agency is very much subject to a continuous erosion of its regulatory function.”

Advertisement

While less focused on regulation, NHTSA has increased its emphasis on improving the behavior of drivers, including using grants to states to crack down on drunk driving and encourage seat belt use.

Safety experts say that behavioral programs have a high potential payoff, as driver error is a cause or contributing factor in most accidents. But critics argue that behavior modification is no substitute for adequate safety standards, because the most careful drivers still need vehicles that will do well in a crash.

However, as a force for safer vehicles, NHTSA increasingly is taking a back seat to product liability lawyers and auto makers themselves, who are finding more than ever that safety sells.

“All manufacturers are . . . now trying to get as much safety performance out in their products as they can,” said Bob Lange, engineering director for the General Motors Safety Center in Warren, Mich. For some vehicle models, safety has become the “core element of . . . brand image,” he said.

Advertisement

However, consumer advocates say neither civil lawsuits nor market forces have raised the bar enough--particularly when safety innovations tend to be concentrated in the high-end models.

“You can get all that stuff if you pay for it,” said Kennerly Digges, a former senior official at NHTSA. “But the guy in the small car is at a disadvantage.”

Over the last decade, most big advances in vehicle standards came under orders from Congress--including mandatory dual front air bags and the more recent requirement of advanced air bags to avoid injuries to children and small adults.

NHTSA also strengthened the standard for interior padding to reduce head injuries in crashes, boasting that the revised standard would save as many as 1,200 lives per year. But the agency completed the revision under a deadline from Congress in 1995--a quarter of a century after the agency initially proposed strengthening the rule.

Advertisement

The adoption last year of a standard on child seat anchorages--designed to keep such seats from being improperly installed--was a rare instance of NHTSA completing a major rule-making on its own.

More often, the agency seems unable to finish what it starts, or waits until tragedy strikes. Consider:

* With the soaring popularity of vans and SUVs as family vehicles, an insurance organization asked NHTSA in 1990 to require that latches on rear hatches and lift gates be at least as strong as the ones on side doors.

After canvassing the auto makers and finding them opposed, NHTSA denied the petition, concluding “that there is no safety need significant enough to justify” the proposal, public records show.

Advertisement

Then in 1993, the agency began receiving reports of unbelted occupants of Chrysler minivans being ejected when their rear lift gates flew open, sometimes in low- to moderate-impact crashes.

Declined to Make $1-Per-Vehicle Fix

Documents subsequently produced in lawsuits showed that Chrysler determined that it could strengthen the latches at a cost of less than $1 per vehicle, but decided against it to avoid undermining its position with NHTSA that a rear latch standard was unnecessary.

As reports of ejections mounted, Chrysler resisted pressure from NHTSA to conduct a recall, arguing, among other things, that its minivans weren’t defective, because they complied with all existing safety standards. Finally, in 1995, Chrysler agreed to replace the latches on millions of its vans in what it insisted was not a recall but a “service action.”

Advertisement

In the uproar over the minivan ejections, NHTSA finally did adopt a strength requirement for rear latches. By then, it had logged reports of 37 deaths and 98 injuries.

* Even with a minimum standard for head restraints, adopted in 1969, about 740,000 whiplash injuries occur annually at a cost of about $4.5 billion in medical and other expenses, according to NHTSA estimates.

In 1974, the agency called for a stronger head restraint standard, but met with industry opposition and abandoned the effort a few years later.

In 1995, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analyzed head restraints on 164 vehicle models--and rated 8% as acceptable or better, and 92% as marginal or poor.

Advertisement

The inadequacies of the head restraint standard “have been known to NHTSA for more than 20 years, since 1974 when it first proposed upgrading the standard, but since that time nothing has happened,” the report says.

That was five years ago; NHTSA says it plans to propose revisions to the standard later this year.

* The federal standard for fuel system integrity has not been substantively revised since 1974. In a review of the standard in 1990, NHTSA estimated that 1,400 deaths and 9,000 injuries were occurring annually in fire-related crashes, that the casualties were rising, and that “the existing standard has had a minimal effect.”

Ten years later, the rule has not been changed.

Advertisement

Last year’s record-breaking verdict of $4.9 billion against General Motors in a Los Angeles case stemming from a fiery crash of a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was, in some respects, a guilty verdict of the fuel integrity standard. GM had argued, unsuccessfully, that it was not liable for the injuries of six burn victims, as its vehicles fully complied with the federal standard. (The trial judge later reduced the award to $1.2 billion and the case is on appeal).

The weakness of the standard previously had complicated a major probe of fire dangers in GM pickups. The NHTSA investigation involved allegations that the pickups, which had side-mounted fuel tanks, were unduly susceptible to fire when involved in crashes. An estimated 161 people burned to death after surviving an initial collision in the trucks.

Resisting pressure for a recall, GM argued that its pickups were as safe as competing models, met the government standard for fuel system integrity, and therefore could not be defective.

A Call in ’94 for New Fuel System Rules

Advertisement

GM emerged victorious in December 1994, when Transportation Secretary Federico Pena declared that there would be no recall and that GM instead would pay a settlement of $51 million for safety research. In announcing the settlement, Pena invoked the need to upgrade the fuel system safety standard.

That was six years ago. NHTSA says it hopes to issue proposed revisions this fall.

* NHTSA has failed to require stronger vehicle roofs to reduce deaths and crippling injuries when vehicles turn over.

The federal roof-crush standard, adopted in 1971, was considered weak even then. In an internal memo three years earlier, a Ford Motor Co. engineer said auto makers could meet a standard one-third again stronger than the one NHTSA eventually approved.

Advertisement

The Ford memo warned that, without adequate roof strength, people who wore seat belts could sustain more serious injuries in a rollover crash than unrestrained occupants, who would tumble about rather have the roof cave in on their heads. “It seems unjust” that those who wear seat belts could be exposed to more danger “than they might expect with no restraint,” the memo said.

Trunk Switch Urged in 1984

Nonetheless, the roof-crush standard has never been strengthened, even though NHTSA announced in 1994 that it was considering an upgrade. Since then, the agency has conducted research, but has not proposed revisions.

* NHTSA also has refused repeatedly to deal with the risk of trunk entrapment.

Advertisement

In 1984, St. Louis auto mechanic William Poehl petitioned NHTSA to require an inexpensive escape switch in car trunks so that anyone who became locked inside could avoid “a most horrible death by asphyxiation.”

“I plead with you [to act] before there are any tragedies,” Poehl wrote.

NHTSA denied the petition, saying Poehl had failed to “provide any data supporting the benefits” of a trunk release switch.

Over the next several years, the agency would receive and reject similar appeals--usually citing the failure of petitioners to prove, using accident statistics, the need for a trunk escape mechanism.

Advertisement

In 1995, when Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) passed along the concerns of a constituent, NHTSA again declined. “We do not believe that manufacturers would consider trunk releases an imminent safety feature,” NHTSA wrote to Graham.

Then, in the summer of 1998, 11 children, age 6 and under, smothered to death in car trunks in separate incidents in three states. As the agency later put it: “These events obliged NHTSA to take another look at the problem.”

NHTSA appointed an expert committee to study the problem and recommend solutions. One member of the panel, Bay Area resident Janette Fennell, had become deeply involved in the issue after being robbed at gunpoint and locked in the trunk of her car. Although NHTSA repeatedly had invoked its lack of data concerning trunk-entrapment casualties, Fennell--without the resources of the government--had developed a database of more than 250 reports of trunk-entrapment deaths since 1970.

In December, on the advice of its committee, NHTSA proposed a standard requiring an escape button or switch in the trunks of cars produced after Jan. 1, 2001.

Advertisement

Since NHTSA has yet to finalize the standard, it appears doubtful the deadline will hold.

Meanwhile, last month in Abilene, Texas, a 6-year-old boy and his 4-year-old sister died along with their pet kitten after getting locked in the trunk of their car.

*

QUESTION OF STABILITY

Advertisement

Critics say the SUV rollover problem shows agency’s failure to protect the public. C1


Advertisement
Advertisement