Nov 25 2008 0 Comments  

Bailed Out Auto Manufacturers Should Upgrade 1970's Safety Practices

Beth Klein

Beth Klein

The big American automobile manufacturers are asking for a bailout from the government to help rescue them from a downturn in sales and significant financial losses. As we have seen lately, many corporations are seeking respite from bad decisions and the bad economic times that plague us all. The decision to provide a bailout is a long, difficult and complicated one. But when a bailout of the auto manufacturers is made, letís consider some conditions to help the individuals who have supported the auto companies for so long. In the early 1970s, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216 was established which provided the minimum guidelines for roof strength. FMVSS 216 provides that the roof of a passenger car had to withstand 1.5 times the vehicles weight or 5,000 pounds, which ever is less, under the test parameters established in the standard. For many cars, and most sport utility vehicles which are heavier than cars, this standard was woefully inadequate. And since it was only a minimum standard, the auto companies had no motivation to utilize their engineering talent to make a better product. Untold numbers of people have been killed and paralyzed when the roof crushes in on them during a rollover accident. For over thirty years, despite changes in technology, changes in vehicles, and changes in knowledge and awareness, the auto manufacturers have fought improvements in this standard. Finally, the move is underway to increase the roof crush standard, but even the new proposed standard (2.5 times the vehicle weight or 10,000 pounds) may not be enough to protect people in larger sport utility vehicles. Further, the proposed standard may contain a preemption clause which could prevent people who get injured from roof crush to pursue litigation since this is a federally approved standard, even though this is a only a minimum standard. Further, this new standard would likely be phased in so that the auto manufacturers would only need to have the new and improved roofs on some cars in each year until their entire line is improved. In the meantime, people will continue to get hurt. Tied in with the inadequate roof crash standard is the often unknown fact that there is no FMVSS guideline regarding rollover or stability. The auto manufactures may argue that the above roof crush standards, as well as other standards regarding occupant crash protection, apply to rollover crashes since the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards provide the minimum guidelines for all occupant protection. But a stability standard should not wait until the vehicle rolls over to determine if it met the standards, such a standard would establish the guidelines to prevent a vehicle from rolling over in the first place. Sport utilities vehicles are designed to be higher off the ground. This design, coupled with a width that is often too narrow for the increased height, creates an SUV that rolls over in emergency avoidance maneuvers (such as swerving to avoid something in the road) when other cars of better design would simply slide out so that they could be safely brought to a stop. Historically, the auto manufacturers have argued that the SUVs must be designed high and narrow to allow for off-road use, all the while marketing these SUVs to soccer moms as the perfect, big, strong, safe, family car. Further, the technology is available to make SUVs safer. Electronic stability control (ESC) is a computerized program that applies different throttle or braking to each individual wheel to help regain control of a vehicle once the vehicle starts to go out of control but before it rolls over. It has proved to be very successful in preventing rollovers from occurring and everyone would agree that it is best to keep a car on its wheels. Yet, despite having the technology for ESC, manufacturers have resisted putting it in all its vehicles arguing that the cost is prohibitive. This is despite the fact that SUVs, one of the best sellers and money makers for the auto industry, would be made considerable safer with this technology. The buckle up for safety campaign began in 1960s when people began to understand the significant benefits that seatbelts provided in protecting occupants in a crash. No one would argue that seatbelts have come a long way since then and have improved greatly over the years. But could it have been better, faster? The answer is yes. As technology has advanced, seatbelts have also been redesigned. But auto manufacturers have resisted putting new designs in cars for years after they become available. As an example, the benefits of shoulder belts were known long before they were mandated in cars. And shoulder belts in the front seats were around for years before manufacturers began to put shoulder belts in the outboard rear seat positions even though the anchor points were available and people, especially children, might be spared devastating injuries from only having a lap belt. Then, even more years passed before the manufacturers would put shoulder belts in the center rear seat position. Another advance in seat belt technology is a pretensioner, which tightens a seat belt in the instant of a crash to prevent the seat belt webbing from spooling out, or loosening, which in turn helps hold the occupant snuggly to the seat. Pretensioners have been around since the 1980s, but only in foreign cars such as Mercedes and Volvo. In the 1990s, auto manufacturers began installing pretensioners in the front seat of their luxury cars but not until around 1998 and later did pretensioners become mainstream equipment in the average priced cars. So people in the less expensive SUVs that were rolling over did not reap the benefits of a pretensioner which was in the luxury sedan that was more stable. And unbeknownst to the American consumer, some American manufacturers were installing pretensioners in cars they were selling overseas as those countries had more stringent standards than here in the U.S. While some people believe you get what you pay for why should existing safety technology only be available to those who can afford the newest and most expensive cars? Should socio-economic factors dictate a persons likelihood to survive an accident? Further, should we really encourage industry to pour millions into lobbying for obsolete technologies when we can all live safer and better?
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