MOTORMOUTH

Eight years ago, on January 23, 2000, Kansas City Chiefs football fans lost a member of their team at the early age of 33 years old.  Was the US Government by neglect, partially responsible for the death of Derrick Thomas?  Did the failure of the NHTSA to adopt and enforce obvious safety regulations, help to leave this community shocked and seven children orphaned?  This week the NHTSA offered stronger regulations that could save the lives of some involved in roll over accidents and they are now seeking your comments. 

 

Derrick Thomas, #58 for the Kansas City Chiefs was the backbone of the defense and a leader in the community.  Thomas was the most visible Kansas City Chief, appearing in nine Pro Bowls.  His record of seven quarterback sacks in a single game stands to this day.  Derrick Thomas is once again a finalist to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  He was a tireless supporter of the United Way, a recipient of the Boy Scouts' Role Model Award, and President George Bush’s Point of Light Award.  He received the National Football League Man of the Year Award, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Man of the Year Award.

 

As with any mortal that wears the mantle of “hero,” Derrick Thomas made some poor choices.  In a icy January Midwestern snowstorm, Derrick Thomas failed to buckle his seat belt.  He drove too fast for the road conditions, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic on his way to the airport to catch a flight.  His Suburban had been modified with aftermarket wheels and tires, altering the geometry and handling of the vehicle.  His single car rollover can and should be considered a tragic accident resulting from another series of poor personal choices. 

 

However the death of Derrick Thomas highlighted a structural limitation in large Sport Utility Vehicles.  Roof pillars are often not strong enough to protect passengers of these popular vehicles in the event of a rollover.  Yes there was a lawsuit. General Motors faced its highest profile case involving a rollover crash and stood to lose millions of dollars.  In the end however, the question was not, did the roof collapse but rather because Mr. Thomas was not wearing his seat belt was he ejected from the vehicle before the roof collapsed?  Legally, the jury found GM not liable for this particular death, because it could not be proved that the roof collapse caused his death. 

 

Yet the roof did collapse.  We all know it will collapse.  If you roll a 6,000-pound Suburban over on its top at 60 MPH, the roof pillars will collapse.  It’s a matter of physics.  And the fix is cheap.  For just a few dollars, these pillars can be strengthened to support the weight of the vehicle.  Saab and other convertible manufacturers have found a way to make the “A” pillar so strong that they can support the entire weight of the car on only the windshield pillars. 

 

Why won’t manufacturers voluntarily make these corrections?  This may be the question for the ages, but we know they often won’t make safety improvements without government regulation.  It may have something to do with admitting that previous designs were a “flaw.”  Arguably this is not a design flaw but an evolution of a design that could offer more protection.  It doesn’t mean the past design was flawed but could it be improved to offer greater safety to those who find their vehicle upside down?  If it were a “design flaw” product liability lawyers would be all over this like vultures circling an injured sheep.  It’s possible that it is simply a matter of cash profits.  The GM Suburban like the Ford Expedition and variant models are little more than pickup trucks with passenger boxes added in place of the bed.  Would an A and B pillar redesign for the Suburban and Expedition mean a complete redesign for all pickups?  In the competitive world of commercial bids, even a hundred dollars can cost a manufacture the loss of a complete fleet sale.  We already know that manufacturers count every penny that goes into the design, engineering, manufacture and assembly of a vehicle.  An extra $100 cost added to the price of 500,000 trucks can mean a $50 Million loss.  It’s safe to say that manufactures do not and cannot regulate safety. 

 

The role of regulating safety is primarily the responsibility of the federal government.  We depend on the government to inspect meat before it reaches the consumer.  It is proven that companies will not stop the pollution of water, air and land without federal oversight.  Workers often face unsafe working conditions without federal rules.  And while it may be the responsibility of the consumer to be vigilant, it is right that the government test children’s toys for lead based paints.  Consumers are often blinded by low cost and simply don’t have the resources in judge product safety features.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is charged with regulating automobile safety. 

 

Automakers often complain about oppressive regulations but truthfully they don’t mind a level playing field.  If only GM made roof safety a priority, then Ford might have a competitive cost advantage.  Yet if all automakers operate with the same expectations the burden of building in safety does not make a product uncompetitive. 

 

Requiring companies to make safe vehicles will never relieve the consumer from making good choices.  Seat belts are provided, but it is up to the driver to wear the harness.  No law can or should ever force safe personal behavior.  Derrick Thomas choose not to wear a seat belt and the jury ultimately ruled that this caused his death.  But the NHTSA might be able to save other lives if they passed stronger rollover safety standards. 

 

The Derrick Thomas case indicates the complexities of roll over accidents.  The 10,000 fatalities occurring in rollover accidents often occur from a multitude of failures of which roof collapse is just one. 

 

Finally after years of study and some would say feet dragging, the NHTSA has proposed increased safety regulations.  The agency is now seeking comments for the next 45 days before making a final decision. A final ruling is expected by the summer of 2008.  Let’s hope they do the right thing. 

 

 

The proposal can be viewed at:
NHTSA Proposal

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