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Veteran Of The Car Safety Wars Speaks Out

The Toyota safety and quality fiasco is an enigma.

by on Feb.22, 2010

Nader's polemic, Unsafe At Any Speed, a clear exaggeration, led to significant safety reforms.

Even as a grizzled veteran of the car safety wars that began with the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed in the mid-1960s, I find it hard to fathom how Toyota has fallen into the mess it finds itself in.

Toyota has benefited from a carefully nurtured reputation for quality and reliability over the last three decades. Unlike domestic manufacturers, Toyota was one of the first to go to longer warranties as the Detroit Three – claiming equivalent quality – stuck with far shorter ones that were less expensive for them, but not their customers.

Toyota also went the extra mile for its customers, quietly fixing out-of-warranty complaints. Critics called these “secret warranties” – although Toyota never was caught at it – and indeed, they were, but they helped build Toyota’s reputation and enviable,money-making owner loyalty.

In Detroit, lawyers and quarterly-finance-report-driven bean counters ruled the roost, rigidly enforcing warranty limits, blithely enduring the wrath of owners who, feeling short-changed, fell into the arms of auto companies backing their products for the longer term.


This is not just speculation. My bride of 20 years ago owned a new Camry, an otherwise fine car that, however, eventually suffered from rusting quarter panels and failing $500 exhaust systems. We learned that Toyota had beyond-warranty “customer satisfaction” programs that covered these flaws. In the case of the exhaust system, we did not find this out until the second set of pipes and mufflers failed.

Well Publicized Safety Issues of the Past

Nevertheless, what about the big safety issues of those past decades? As noted, the first was Nader’s attack on the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair introduced in 1959. His legal argument was that the car handled differently than front-engine cars, therefore typical American drivers were unsafe driving them. Of course, VW, Renault and Porsche also were rear-engine, but at the time their manufacturers were far away, their pockets shallow and their numbers few.

Along with most other auto writers then, I loved the Corvair’s neat handling and fascinating features.   (more…)

Is NHTSA’s New Roof-Crush Standard Worth It?

Doubling the strength of roofs is a costly gambit.

by on May.07, 2009


Are there other strategies that might be quicker and save more lives for the same bucks?

On April 30, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a long-awaited — by Washington pressure groups anyway — notice of revisions to the roof-crush testing standard for all light vehicles.

In essence, it doubled the standard for passenger cars and trucks weighing up to 6,000 pounds, and for the first time added test requirements for vehicles weighing between 6,000 and 10,000 pounds (typically “super duty” pickups like Ford F-250/Chevrolet 2500 and up). The revised standards will be phased in September 2012 for 2013 model-year vehicles and completed with introduction of 2017 models. 

In its news release, NHTSA made no claims for lives saved by the new regulation, or the resulting costs to buyers of new cars. However, published news accounts attributed to the Department of Transportation, of which NHTSA is part, stated that the upgraded standard will “save 135 lives, prevent 1,000 injuries and add up to $1.4 billion annually to the cost of new cars. (NHTSA did not respond to this reporter’s query.) 

The question: is the government’s new roof-crush standard worth it? Of course, if you or a loved one is one of the 135 lives, obviously it is. But the real issue is could the money be better spent? Are there other strategies that might be quicker and more productive, save more lives and injuries for the same bucks? Possibly.  

Subscribe to TheDetroitBureau.comFor one thing, the numbers of lives saved probably means only after all vehicles on the road have met the standard, replacing older vehicles. Given a typical passenger vehicle life of ten years, which means the 135 lives saved would come sometime between 2013 and 2027, and closer to the end than the beginning. Traditionally only about ten percent of the vehicle population is retired each year, and this applies mainly to passenger cars and may be out of date, meaning it could take even longer to get the hoped-for results in the current economic climate. 

For another thing, there’s a July 2003 NHTSA study of deaths from rollover crashes called Initiatives to Address the Mitigation of Vehicle Rollover. It suggested a number of strategies-vehicle, roadway and behavioral–for reducing the highway toll from this type of incident. In my view the study was complete, scientific (meaning free from political interference) and filled with excellent initiatives for follow-up. Only one of the strategies dealt with roof-crush standard stiffening-and it seemed to be uncertain.     (more…)

A Primer on Roadway Safety Statistics

U. S. traffic deaths for 2008 reached "only" an estimated 37,313, the lowest number since 1961.

by on Apr.10, 2009

The seat belt remains the single most effective safety device ever invented.

If used, the seat belt remains the single most effective auto safety device ever invented.

The defining moment for safety statistics for me stands out in my memory. It was early one Sunday morning, summer of 1951, in a small town in Alabama. Harry and I had been driving all night, long before the advent of Interstates, in his worn ’46 Ford Club Coupe heading to Florida from Kentucky. Occasionally, when the heat needle threatened, we’d feed the radiator with water from a canteen, once refilled from a roadside creek. 

Just as we circled the courthouse square shortly after sun-up, I witnessed a deputy sheriff walk up to a large signboard on the courthouse lawn to change the number-increasing it by one-for the accumulated traffic deaths in the county for the year. The deputy probably had been up all night, too, cleaning up the “fatal.” Some next-of-kins would be digesting the devastating news. Eventually, the totals for that county might have been worked, voluntarily and haphazardly, into the annual reports of the private National Safety Council. 

Since 1975, there’s been a very disciplined, nationwide system for reporting traffic deaths called FARS, for Fatality Analysis Reporting System, run by the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency’s General Estimates System (GES) supplements FARS by sampling serious accident police reports for additional data on injuries and property damage. A uniform accident report form is used in most every jurisdiction and the resulting fatality data collected from the states by the Feds. In turn, NHTSA analysts crunch the numbers from more than 100 FARS and 90 GES data elements. 

From this system came the big announcement from NHTSA earlier this week: U. S. traffic deaths for 2008 reached “only” an estimated 37,313, the lowest number since 1961. In addition, the fatality rate was the lowest ever recorded, at 1.28 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. We’ll have to wait several months for more detailed and “final” numbers to be issued.  (more…)