In a rush to get the Model T’s on the road, some of the seats got packed with raw, untreated Spanish moss. What’s the worst that can happen? All the insects that lived in the Spanish moss eventually ate their way through the seats and into the garments and skin of the Model T passengers and drivers. – They’re ripping my flesh off! – What to do? Well, Ford replaced all the stuffing. I’m Nolan Sykes, and I’m talking about recalls. It would be another five decades before the word recall became a regular part of the lexicon.
Although it and consumers have been aware of the dangers of driving since cars first hit the road. We all know a little about how the car revolutionized American lives. But the newfound freedom and convenience was not without cost. As more cars crowded the roads, more traffic deaths and injuries occurred. People scrambled to figure out why it was happening. Everything from driver and pedestrian error to highway engineering and traffic hazards were blamed. And when some issues were found to be early design flaws in the automobile, people were kind of like, yeah, this is a bit on us. These things are new, they’re still working out the kinks. – Got to be careful! – Stop yelling at me, I know what I’m doing, alright? (car crashing) – Initially, the focus was on the driver responsibility.
The National Safety Council was formed in the early 20s to increase public awareness of the dangers of driving. They had nothing to do with making cars safer. Laws to promote safety passed and enforced, including arrests for driving under the influence and the implementation of traffic signals. Things got a little better, but auto makers were still slow to act on redesigning cars to make them safer. All-steel bodies weren’t standard until the 1930s, same thing with shatterproof glass, and that was patented in 1909.
Manufacturers were quick to assure drivers that operating a car was getting safer all the time. But they resisted to do things like seat belts and padded dashboards because they worried that adding safety features to cars would make people think that cars might not be safe. – A revolutionary new discovery about the seat belt. It’s beautiful. – And in the heyday of American cars, I’m talking the late 50s, a young Harvard law student by the name of Ralph Nader started to become bored by his courses. Instead of squeezing behind a desk in some stuffy classroom, Nader decided he’d hitchhike across the US to research issues facing Native Americans and investigate effecting change with migrant workers’ rights.
But he kept thinking about those dang-nabbit hard as heck cars that picked him up as he hitchhiked across the country. I mean, big metal boxes going 60? Something about that didn’t sit right with him. So, when Nader rejoined civilian life, he started researching the auto industry’s lack of response to car safety features. It took him a few years to get the word out, but when he released his scathing expose, Unsafe at any Speed, the Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile in 1965, it became a best-seller. It sent shockwaves throughout the country with drivers, law makers, and even the auto industry, which was looking to avoid the harsh glare of the spotlight. Listen to the first sentence. For over a half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorry and deprivation to millions of people.
Unsafe all but pointed the finger a car maker for their outright refusal to spend the money needed to make safety features mandatory. The book detailed stories of inadequate crash protection, of drivers impaled on non-collapsible steering columns, and of cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, which was sold with a fatal suspension defect. Chevy tried to alleviate the design flaw by advising that tires should be well under-inflated to improve handling, but nobody knew about it. And the car would flip in sharp turns when the tires were inflated to industry standards. Nader said that the Corvette was the biggest safety transgressor on the road. Nader explained that car makers were ignoring a moral imperative to make their products safer because they did not want to spend the money to do so. With the publication of Unsafe, the heat was on and car makers finally faced the wrath of the government. Within ten months of the book’s release, Senate hearings began with Nader facing off against the defiant auto industry.
In 1966, as a result of those hearings, the Department of Transportation and predecessor agencies of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were formed. Also, in September of that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act into law to enforce new or upgraded vehicle safety standards and to supervise safety recalls. With the NHTSA in place, traffic fatalities and injuries were significantly reduced. And technologies like three-point seat belts, energy absorbing steering assemblies, dual cylinders and front disc brakes were made standard. Airbags, electronic stability control, and more recently, rear-view cameras and automatic braking have also since added into the equation. Added safety features and recalls became an everyday fact of life for consumers, but car companies still had issues with transparency. Take, for example, the Ford Pinto.
In 1968, Lee Iacocca decided Ford needed an in on the economy car market. He hurried production of the Ford Pinto, hoping to compete with cars like the economical but sporty Datsun 510, which was becoming a favorite of US consumers. While the Pinto was in development, Ford found a flaw in the car’s fuel tanks. And it wasn’t like, heh, hey, these might rust. It was a little more serious. The defect would cause them to explode. Even in a low-impact crash. (tires screeching) (triangle ding) (explosion) Engineers offered solutions but implementing those would mean the car would be delayed.
Iacocca said- ♪ Nobody gonna slow me down ♪ and the Pinto was released with the defect in tact in 1970. This proved to be a fatal mistake. I don’t mean fatal figuratively, because people really died. Pintos involved in low-speed rear-end crashes burst into flames and people were killed or severely injured as a result of the defect. Because data for such things wasn’t great in the 70s, we don’t have definitive numbers, but fatalities from the defect have been estimated as high as 190 people. The NHTSA started an investigation on the Pinto in 1974. But it took another three years for the problem to be made public. It was an article in Mother Jones magazine that first revealed to the public that the problem would’ve cost Ford just an extra 11 dollars a car to fix. The company and Iacocca’s reputation were nearly destroyed as a result. And Ford finally recalled the Pinto in 1978. People died for 11 dollars. But car makers still fought the system and conspired to delay the adoption of NHTSA crash standards. In other words, the industry did what they could to continue to keep its profits flowing and continue the status quo.
While NHTSA changed the game, it still failed to do one thing. Hold car companies criminally responsible for knowingly keeping safety standards at bay for profit. It only held them civilly liable. Memos were found at some companies when they became aware of a fault would do the math to find out how much it would cost to fix the fault and compare that to how much they estimated to lose in civil hearings. If the cost of fixing it outweighed the cost they’d lose in lawsuits, they wouldn’t issue a recall. Think about that. So, in 2000, the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation, or TREAD Act, established criminal liability for auto execs who neglected to adhere to new reporting requirements related to defects or reports of injury or death related to its products. While it’s a step in the right direction, it’s still limited in its reach. And companies benefit from a provision that allows considerably flexibility and time to fix any safety violation.
Case in point, the Takata airbags recall, the largest in history. At about the same time the TREAD Act was made law, Takata execs knew their airbags weren’t up to snuff and could in fact kill people. Before 2001, airbags were made with a sodium azide propellant that was relatively safe when the bag was deployed. But to save a few bucks, Takata changed their airbag propellant to an explosive ammonium nitrate. Takata knew that it was dangerous. When the bags were deployed, they sent shrapnel flying. Drivers and passengers were killed and seriously injured as a result of this decision. And in 2017, Takata agreed to plead guilty and pay upwards of a billion dollars in criminal penalties for knowingly selling products that could kill or hurt people. While some cars with Takata airbags have been recalled, more than 30 million are still in US highways with the problem unresolved. I mention the Takata airbag recall because it’s the biggest one ever. But there’s others. There have been faulty starter switches that disable a car, there have been accelerators that won’t stop accelerating. Heck, in South Africa, there’s a car whose engine is lighting on fire and it’s being blamed on drivers or the weather.
I’ll take bugs in the seats over those any day. Look, I love cars. I’m not going to say don’t drive a car. I understand that nothing is ever 100% risk-free. But I’m a little guy, so what can I do? Well, first you can check your VIN to make sure there’s no open recalls on whatever you’re driving. Then get it fixed. Cars are safer now than they’ve ever been before. And that’s because we’re demanding it. Thanks to Nader, there’s independent testing and watchdog groups that try to keep us little guys safe. It’s up to us to look out for each other. I don’t know who the next Nader is, I hope we don’t need them. Maybe someday soon safety recalls will be a thing of the past while we cruise through life as we can be. Going around 60 miles an hour. (chuckles) Or faster.
Keywords: Automobile Defect Attorney, traffic deaths, auto industry, drivers, passengers, airbag recall