Vehicle Safety Systems Become Standard Due to Public Awareness and Manufacturer Accountability

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Modern cars, trucks, and SUVs contain a wealth of safety features and engineering considerations borne out of more than a century of producing vehicles. However, until the 1960s and 1970s vehicle safety did not receive the attention it deserved and many extremely preventable catastrophic injuries occurred. The reasons for this delayed focus on vehicle safety and design defects are numerous, but several factors included:

  • Vehicle cost – Additional safety features or changes to vehicle design generally means an increase in production costs and thus an increased cost passed on to the consumer. Even when the cost of additional safety measures was low, many manufacturers declined to implement them. Today, similar cost pressures still affect vehicle safety decisions.
  • Aesthetics & design – In the postwar period style, flash and design dominated. This led to design flaws like confusing button-based gear shifts and excessive chrome ornamentation on the dash that could temporarily blind the driver by reflecting the sun into the driver’s eyes.
  • Lack of public concern – For much of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s the safety of vehicles was not in the forefront of public consciousness. However, a number of high profile events spurred changes in public opinion. The gruesome and preventable death of celebrity Jayne Mansfield and the release of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed are but two of the factors that contributed to changing perceptions and providing a sense that accidents of this type could happen to anyone.

In short, a variety of factors resulted in the typical lack of concern that was then-typical in the industry and among the public. Today, the general public is extremely safety conscious. For many families, the safety and crash rating of their vehicle is their primary concern when selecting a vehicle. The more widespread deployment of proven, life-saving technologies has generally provided more viable vehicle options. But even today, vehicle safety can still be significantly improved. If we needed any more proof that improvements can be made, 2014’s recalls for defective ignition switches, dangerous guardrails and exploding airbags should suffice. Cost cutting and putting profits over American families has always carried a high price. Remembering that automakers and industry players once claimed today’s standard safety features were too costly or not wanted by Americans can provide perspective for today’s safety debates.

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What is the Basis for Automobile Liability?

Before moving into the specific event or safety crises, it is important to understand that the current product liability regime that can hold auto manufacturers for defects in vehicle design was, largely, not developed until the 1960s. On exception is the oft-cited 1916 case MacPherson v. Buick which took the initial step of striking down the privity requirement that had required a direct relationship between the injured party and the cause of the injury. For instance, prior to MacPherson, an injured plaintiff would have no cause of action if they suffered injury due to a wheel that vehicle breaks because the vehicle manufacturer was contractually linked to the supplier – not the injured party.

The next major developments that would provide the legal basis for reshaping the auto industry did not occur until the late 1960s. In Larsen v. General Motors Corp. the basis for negligent design claims was established after it was shown that the design of a vehicle steering column transferred the impact energy directly to the driver’s head. Overturning the previously held view that an automobile crash was not an “intended use” of the vehicle, Larsen held hat a defective design can form the basis of an unreasonable risk to the driver and vehicle occupants and therefore the manufacturer should face liability for injuries.  These cases, largely, form the basis for modern car, truck, and SUV design defect litigation.

Insufficient Roof Strength Can Crush Motorists

Since at least the 1950s or 1960s, many automakers were aware that the roofs on their vehicles were of insufficient strength to withstand most forces that would act upon it. In the 1970s manufacturers opposed attempts by the National Highway Safety Bureau, the forerunner of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to develop safety standards and minimum strength requirements.

In fact, in the 1969 case Dyson v. General Motors, the insufficiency of the Buick Elektra’s roof strength had caused it to collapse when the vehicle rolled over. The crushing forces from the collapsed roof severely injured the vehicle occupants. After the trial, it was held by the court that vehicle manufacturers are responsible for providing, “more than merely a movable platform capable of transporting passengers from one point to another. The passengers must be provided a reasonably safe container which to make the journey.”

However, unfortunately, changes did not come quickly following the verdict in Dyson. In fact, the auto manufacturers continued to successfully oppose heightened standards for roof strength for decades – throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. NHTSA was not able to take action to toughen standards until 2012 following outrage over the severe injuries sustained by Penny Shipler after the roof of her Chevrolet Blazer collapsed approximately 8 inches after a rollover accident.

Events like these show that the battles over automobile safety concerns are far from over. Absent public pressure, oversight or government regulations automakers are unlikely to always choose the safest option when designing vehicles.

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Unit-Body Construction Prevents Avoidable Deaths and Catastrophic Injuries

Today, few Americans would even consider the purchase of a vehicle that was not designed with unit-body construction. However, for decades body-on-frame designs and construction dominated the industry. While the body-on-frame construction is easier to design and repair, the design has several disadvantages compared to, the now common, unit-body construction including:

  • Increased vehicle weight and mass results in reduced performance and fuel mileage. The additional mass may serve to make accident forces more severe.
  • This construction type typically lacks crumple zones which are important for absorbing the violent forces involved in an accident.
  • The car body is prone to flexing which can cause an unexpected decrease in handling, cornering and road grip.

Perhaps the event that most catalyzed the push towards safer vehicle body construction was the 1974 accident involving a New Jersey Police officer.

In 1974, Pennsauken Police Department officer Richard Dawson was responding to an alarm due to a suspected burglary. En route to the alarm Officer Dawson lost control of his Dodge Monaco. The vehicle came to a stop after the officer struck a steel pole. According to witnesses, the officer was not traveling in excess of 25 miles an hour. Despite the relatively low speed involved, the pole tore through Dawson’s vehicle partially crushing him. Dawson was paralyzed from the neck down and, as a quadriplegic, required extensive support and medical care.

At trial, Officer Dawson’s personal injury attorney argued that the Dodge vehicle was defectively designed because it was unable to withstand side impacts at even relatively low speeds. The attorney highlighted the fact that the car was not of a unit body construction type and the presence of a nearly foot-and-a-half gap between portions of the vehicle frame. Evidence was introduced showing that the steel pole had moved along the side of the vehicle body until it reached the gap between the parts of the frame. Once it reached the gap, the pole sheared through the vehicle. A continuous frame would have prevented the pole from slicing through the vehicle thus reducing or eliminating the injuries suffered by Officer Dawson.

hospital bed patient

Chrysler defended against Dawson’s lawsuit by stating that it met all current federal regulatory standards. The company also asserted that it had no duty to produce a “crash proof” car. An additional consideration raised by Chrysler was that the change to unit body construction would add approximately $300 to the cost of each vehicle. The court held Chrysler liable for the design defect and now unit body designs are common.

The Fight for Safe Vehicles that Prevent Catastrophic Injuries and Wrongful Death is Ongoing

Unit body construction and increased vehicle roof strength requirements are merely two of the safety developments that have prevented injuries and saved lives. However, the standardization of these safety features was only possible through the development of law that permits injured motorists to hold car and truck manufacturers accountable for design defects and increased public awareness regarding safety.  In the next part of this series, we will examine the reasons behind the development for the presence of or increased safety standards for gas tank placement, electronic stability control, and door latches.

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