Federal auto safety regulations cover new cars, of course. But what about older cars? Of the more than 250 million vehicles on the roads, three-quarters are more than five years old, according to the data firm IHS Automotive, and more than 50 million are pre-1999 models. They met the government’s safety rules when they were produced, but rules and safety technologies 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, CA., 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 miles per hour. 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.
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Toyota defended itself by pointing out that federal regulations did not require lap-shoulder belts in the center rear seats of cars when the ’96 4runner was made. But Ms. 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 that are lacking in millions of older cars include airbags and electronic stability control systems to prevent rollovers (both required), and brake override systems to prevent runaway acceleration (currently, 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, the companies 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 only happen after someone has been hurt or killed. The best way is for NHTSA to see that safety is delivered to car owners faster and more effectively by speeding up and broadening its rulemaking and defect-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, a safety consultant who served as an expert witness in Hill v. Toyota, is also a board member of the Center for Auto Safety.