Federal auto-safety regulations cover new cars, of course. But what about older cars?
Of the 250 million-plus vehicles on the roads, three-quarters are more than 5 years old, according to IHS Automotive, and more than 50 million are pre-1999 models.
They met government safety rules when they were produced, but rules and safety technology have evolved, and most lack basic safety features of newer models. As these cars age, their owners tend to be younger or poorer people, who need as much protection as everyone else.
A recent court case in Monterey, in which I testified as an expert on the history of restraint systems, underscored the problem. In Hill v. Toyota, a teenage girl was riding in the center rear seat of a 1996 Toyota 4Runner SUV when the vehicle crashed into a tree at about 30 mph.
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Wearing the lap-only belt provided in that seat, she suffered severe spinal cord and abdominal injuries from jackknifing over the belt – injuries that would have been prevented or substantially lessened by a lap-shoulder belt. The other seats had lap-shoulder belts, and the other occupants weren’t seriously injured. Chelsie Hill, the plaintiff, was rendered paraplegic and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Toyota defended itself by pointing out that federal regulations did not require lap-shoulder belts in center rear seats when the 1996 4Runner was made. But Hill’s attorneys countered that Toyota, knowing that lap-shoulder designs were safer than lap-only belts, could have provided them voluntarily – and indeed had done so on other, higher-priced models. After hearing arguments by both sides, the jury last month found Toyota liable and assessed $12 million in damages. Toyota has not said whether it intends to appeal.
Millions of cars still on the road are equipped with lap-only seat belts because federal regulations did not ban them until the 2005 model year. Other safety features lacking in millions of older cars include airbags and electronic stability control systems to prevent rollovers (both now required), and brake override systems to prevent runaway acceleration (a proposed requirement).
A number of manufacturers provided these features as standard or optional equipment before they had to. When automakers have failed to provide them voluntarily, and severe injuries resulted, they have been hauled into court.
Hill v. Toyota is one of many cases stemming from lap-belt-caused injuries in vehicles made when safer belts were available in the other seating positions. Such lawsuits are one way to encourage earlier introduction of safety features. But they’re not the best way, because lawsuits happen only after someone has been hurt or killed.
The best way is for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to speed up and broaden its rulemaking and recall processes. NHTSA has been under fire from legislators and safety advocates for being a captive of the auto industry. If and when NHTSA starts behaving like an aggressive regulator, every motorist, whether in new or used vehicles, will benefit.
Ben Kelley is a safety consultant and a board member of the Center for Auto Safety.
This commentary is also being published by FairWarning, a Los Angeles nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.