Government Lapdogs Roll Over for Automakers
By Joseph S. Enoch
July 23, 2007
David Garcia thought he was dead.
He had just swerved to avoid a car that cut him off. The violent motion sent his Ford Escort rolling and tumbling off I-29 in Tallulah, La. in 1996. The roof caved in with surprising ease.
His fiancee asked him if he was all right. His ability to respond assured him he was not dead but it didn't answer why he couldn't feel or move any part of his body.
That night, with screws holding his skull in place, Garcia asked a doctor in the hospital if he would make a full recovery. The doctor's terse, professional response was, “You will never walk again.”
Garcia, a paraplegic, is one of the "lucky" 16,000 who merely suffer catastrophic injuries in vehicle rollovers annually; 10,000 who aren't so lucky die each year.
The goal of the summit, according to its organizer, Paula Lawlor, was to get the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and members of Congress.
Lawlor, a 54-year-old mother of seven, has been crusading for safer cars since at least 1998. She has testified in personal injury trials and helped accident victims and their families win millions of dollars in damage awards.
Industry lobbyists and their government accomplices often attempt to tar the reputation of consumer advocates who help consumers in court, as though ordinary citizens unable to afford lobbyists and public relations spinmeisters are not worthy of assistance.
They have given Lawlor the same treatment.
Her conference was well-attended by independent safety experts but representatives of Congress, NHTSA and the auto industry failed to show up, even though the event took place just a few blocks from NHTSA's headquarters and the Capitol. Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety were represented.
The only presence from Capitol Hill was a staff member from the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over NHTSA.
Nor was the press knocking down the doors. A search of Google News over the weekend found only one story about the conference -- a July 16 ConsumerAffairs.Com story that said government and industry planned to shun the event.
The contrast with industry-sponsored events was stunning. When GM or Ford brings one of its one-in-a-million plug-in hybrid prototypes to Capitol Hill, the vehicle is swallowed up in the bipartisan crush of lawmakers. When the show is over, the gee-whiz prototype disappears and is never seen again.
Lawlor said Roger Saul, NHTSA's director of crashworthiness, asked her prior to the conference: “What do you have to say that we don't already know?”
She later discovered that he had forbidden any NHTSA staffer to attend, she said.
Saul could not be reached for comment, but NHTSA spokesman Ray Tyson said, “There's nothing to discuss until the process goes along much farther.”
The process Tyson referred to is a proposed rulemaking that will require automakers to increase roof strength. NHTSA began work on the proposed rules 10 years and about 100,000 deaths ago. Although Congress set an April 2009 deadline for the proposals, Tyson said there is still no timetable and many auto safety experts say the stricter rules still will not keep drivers safe.
Body by Fisher
Currently, automakers must abide by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 216, which became law in 1973.
As is so often the case, the standard was devised not by zealous government regulators but by industry.
Fisher Body, a subsidiary of General Motors, created the standard. It was supposed to be a 4-year solution, according to a 1971 NHTSA press release. The year 1977 came and passed without any improved testing methods and the nation has relied on a mostly-unchanged FMVSS 216 for the past 35 years.
FMVSS 216 requires that vehicles be able to withstand pressure from a metal plate that applies at least 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle onto the roof without caving more than five inches into the cabin.
But engineers say many vehicles that pass this “static” test would not pass a “dynamic” test -- a more demanding test that subjects the vehicle to more realistic scenarios, such as dropping it from a few inches above the ground or forcing it to do many uncontrollable flips at high speed.
Documents reveal that Fisher Body likely created FMVSS 216 because many of General Motors' vehicles would not pass anything else.
Many General Motors vehicles were not passing the drop test standards of the 1960s. So Fisher Body developed the static crusher, coined “Goldfinger.” In a proposal by Fisher Body's Ed Klove, he outlined Goldfinger's advantages: “More impressive numbers are obtained – three inches crush for 6,000 lb. load. (A six-inch vehicle drop height allowing eight inches crush is not impressive).”
Before NHTSA accepted the tests, Fisher Body increased the size of its crushing plates – more evenly dispersing the crushing power and decreasing the plates' angle of attack, thereby lessening Goldfinger's crushing ability.
On the Road
Today, many American and Japanese models barely meet the less than stringent requirements of FMVSS 216.
In fact, there may be Ford Explorers on the road that fail FMVSS 216, said Stephen Forrest, a former General Motors engineer and now engineer for the Safety Analysis & Forensics Engineering consumer safety group.
He analyzed Ford's testing statistics and found the 1998-2001 Ford Explorer models barely passed FMVSS 216. Comparing the results of those models to 1995-1997 models and applying the standard eight percent variation, Forrest determined that there are almost certainly Ford Explorers in daily use today that do not meet NHTSA's standards.
“It's so close, with normal variation it's almost a certainty there are some vehicles that fail 216,” Forrest said.
Although the two Explorer models are similar in size and weight, Forrest said he believes the 1998-2001 models are less safe because there is six inches less of reinforcement in the door frame -- a critical juncture during rollovers.
Accidents involving the rollover-prone Explorer sparked the massive Firestone-Bridgestone tire recall in 2000.
But when he took his statistics to NHTSA, they ignored his petition because of “financial and industry” considerations, Forrest said.
NHTSA's proposed new FMVSS 216 requirements would require Ford and other automakers to create vehicles that can withstand 2.5 times their weight, versus the 1.5 standard now in effect.
But engineers believe those new standards still won't do enough because they rely on a static test rather than a dynamic one.
“The 216 test is flawed in so many ways,” Forrest said. “It doesn't take into account occupancy and it doesn't take into account survival space. Five inches in an Econoline Van and (in) a Ford Escort is not the same thing.”
Both Forrest and Nick Perrone, an engineer who has analyzed and taught vehicular safety for 35 years, said that to be safe, a vehicle should survive at least 3.5 times its weight in a static test and a dynamic rollover test.
“It's criminal negligence that auto manufacturers do not perform dynamic tests,” Perrone said.
Additionally, if a vehicle is designed to withstand rollovers, it will also survive side impacts better, he said.
“The two deadliest things that can happen are side impact and rollover,” Perrone said. “They account for about two-thirds of all fatalities.”
But automakers say dynamic tests yield unusable results.
“The problem with the dynamic test is that it's unpredictable,” Chrysler representative Michael Palese said. “It's a very violent, very unpredictable event.”
But critics say real-world accidents are violent and unpredictable as well -- and that's why cars should pass violent dynamic tests along with more controllable drop tests and static crush tests.
Making vehicles strong enough to pass stricter static and dynamic tests would cost $50 to $100 per vehicle, Perrone said.
Many industry insiders blame NHTSA's snail's pace on the incestuous relationship it has with U.S. automakers.
• Sue Bailey became NHTSA's administrator in 2000, just as the Firestone tire recall became front page news. A year later, Ford hired Bailey as a consultant on the recall even as Ford and Firestone battled over liability.
• Barry Felrice worked for NHTSA for 20 years, climbing to the associate administrator position, before accepting a job as Chrysler's chief of regulatory affairs in its Washington, D.C. office.
• Jerry Curry headed NHTSA during the first Bush administration. He then went on to pursue a career consulting two of the larger automobile lobbying firms.
Outside of NHTSA, in the Executive Branch, Andrew Card has dipped deeply into the automotive industry's wallet. Between his terms as Chief of Staff for Bush Sr. and Jr., Card was the auto industry's head lobbyist as president of the American Automobile Manufacturing Association.
Perrone, who has worked with many NHTSA employees, said the transition from the government to the lucrative auto and lobbying industries is common at all levels.
“It's like a revolving door,” he said.
Forrest said that although NHTSA's relationship with the auto industry is peculiar, he doesn't believe the agency is purposely trying to harm consumers for the sake of the industry.
“I don't know if they actually defend automakers as much as they capitulate to them. ... Their hands are (so) tied by economic and political pressures that they can't get much of anything done."
NHTSA and automakers say they work together to protect consumers and that although new regulations are being proposed, the current ones are still effective.
“The current standard is quite stringent,” NHTSA's Tyson said.
NHTSA data reveal that of all the passengers in rollovers, about 2.5 percent die while 6.5 percent suffer serious injuries.
Tyson argued that many of those injuries and deaths are not the result of the roof collapsing.
“Of the 10,000 or so (deaths) every year, about two-thirds of them are not belted,” Tyson said.
Tyson said the greatest way for consumers to stay safe during a rollover is to have their seatbelts fastened.
He failed to mention another way consumers can increase their margin of safety: buy a European car. BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and other European manufacturers build much more rigid bodies that are more stringently tested for rollover protection.
Another option: install a roll bar of the kind used in race cars. Most body shops can install a roll bar in nearly any vehicle. They greatly increase protection in a rollover and may help in some side impacts.
David Garcia, who was belted in and completely sober during his accident, said he just wishes Ford had made his car safer.