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December 6, 2004

Former NHTSA President Delineates History of Automobile Safety and Liability

“The nut behind the wheel,” was the automobile industry’s refrain 50 years ago in response to car crashes. Crashes were the driver’s fault, and the solution to deaths and injuries was driver education. “The auto industry avoided responsibility,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy organization. “They heaped all the responsibility for injuries on the driver.”

Formerly president of the  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  (NHTSA) under President Jimmy Carter, Claybrook traced the history of liability for car crashes when she gave the Daniel J. Raskin Memorial Lecture on Injury Prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on December 1.

The shift of responsibility from the driver to the manufacturer began in the mid-1960s, when a doctor named William Haddon devised a model that split the crash into three phases. The “pre-crash” involves conditions before the event, such as bad weather or tires and drunk drivers. Then there was the crash itself, which includes issues such as the presence of a seat belts, air bags, padded dashboards and head restraints. The post-crash period covers such circumstances as whether there's a fire or whether a person is removed from the car readily and treated medically. The Haddon Matrix, as it is known, became a tool for analysis so that specific remedies could be applied to each phase of the crash.

Ralph Nader wrote about the Haddon Matrix in his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed. His book was an indictment of the Detroit automobile manufacturers—there was even a whole chapter devoted to the Chevrolet Corvair. “Nader trashed it,” Claybrook recalled. GM’s response was to try to hire Nader, which failed. “So they tried to dig up dirt on him. It backfired.”

After the media got a hold of GM’s actions concerning Nader, Claybrook explained, GM issued a public apology. In 1966, Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This act forced safety design guidelines and established a crashworthiness standard. And in a 1967 court case, that standard was upheld: the court held that GM was liable for injuries for not building safety into their vehicles. In 1970, the NHTSA was founded. Ever since then, manufacturers have been liable for the safety of their products.

And ever since then, they have been fighting it, according to Claybrook.

Claybrook watched the struggle. One of those struggles was over airbags. Airbags were first invented in the late 1960s. The NHTSA issued a rule to require them for the 1974 model year. GM liked them and planned to install them in all of their cars by 1975, but Ford hated them. Lee Iococca, then president of Ford Motors, lobbied President Richard Nixon and got the NHTSA rule delayed until 1976—when the rule was re-issued, only to be revoked. In what was typical of the “long tortuous history” of the airbag, Claybrook said the final rule was not re-issued until 1998. An additional requirement to accommodate people of all sizes as well as non-belted occupants was also added. “We have to rejoice in the fact that we did get them into vehicles and that they aren’t only used here, but around the world,” Claybrook said. The NHTSA estimates that airbags have reduced fatalities by 31 percent in frontal crashes.

Rollover protection has a shorter history than airbags but an equally tumultuous one, Claybrook said. And the widespread use of SUVs made it a critical issue. Crashes involving rollovers injure over 10,000 people a year and kill 17,000. In 1986, Congressman Tim Wirth of Colorado petitioned the NHTSA to create a rule for rollover prevention and to conduct an investigation for rollovers in certain vehicles, but so far rollover crashworthiness protection is not applied to cars currently on the road.

“Amazingly, strides have been made,” Claybrook said. “Considering the might of the industry—they have reams of lobbyists—it’s amazing what we’ve done.” —Kristi Birch