Did You Know... Vehicle Fires Remain A Serious Problem?
Brett EmisonDecember 05, 2011 11:12 AM
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Despite some improvements, vehicle fires (including post-collision fuel fed fires) remain a serious problem. The Detroit News reported last week that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened or upgraded half-a-dozen fire defect investigations this year while automakers issued another dozen recalls for fire-associated risks. NHTSA just opened an investigation into fire risks associated with electric-hybrid Chevy Volt.
[A]ccording to the National Fire Protection Agency there were 184,500 passenger vehicle fires, including 285 deaths and 1,440 injuries in the United States in 2010. The fires caused about $1 billion in damage.
Independent safety advocate Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies said that prevention of vehicle fires is important. "This is a big issue and is probably one where NHTSA could beef up its resources," Kane said.
Just as with tire defects, auto industry insiders -- and even some consumers -- are familiar with tank location defects, such as the "side-saddle" fuel tank defect in which the fuel tanks were located in an unprotected area on the side of a pickup truck outside of the frame rails and "Pinto"-type defects where the fuel tank is located in an unprotected location between the rear axle and rear bumper. While these defects still exist, today the more common fuel system defects concern fuel siphoning (gas leakage after a fuel line has been cut or broken), failure to incorporate anti-leak check valves and fuel filler neck defects.
Manufacturers concede that a vehicle occupant should not survive a collision only to burn to death in a fire caused by a fuel leak. In other words, if the crash itself does not kill the occupant, neither should the fuel system.
General Motors (GM) engineers agreed and advised the company's management more than 35 years ago that fuel leaks should not occur in crashes that would otherwise be survivable. GM, as well as other manufacturers, failed to adopt this directive from their engineers and instead chose to comply only with the minimum standards imposed by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301.
Around the same time, GM prepared a "value analysis" that examined the cost of fire-related fatalities to GM. The analysis, prepared by GM advance-design engineer Edward Ivey, has become known as the "Ivey Memo." Ivey concluded that GM could save $2.20 per new car if it could prevent fuel-fed fires in all crashes.
Langdon & Emison was able to have the Ivey Memo introduced as evidence for the first time in any case in Baker v. General Motors. GM tried keep Ronald Elwell, a GM engineer for more than 30 years, from testifying regarding the Ivey Memo value analysis. After fighting GM clear to the United States Supreme Court, a 9-0 decision confirmed that GM could not buy its engineer's silence. Elwell testified:
"Value analysis says all we have got is $2.20 to play with, if you will. We can either put that money in a fuel tank, put that money in a fuel pump, put that money in a fuel line, but in our opinion, in order to save these people from dying, we can only put $2.20 into the new cars."
The Ivey Memo told GM management that after only $2.20 per car, it became more profitable to let its customers die than to fix the problem. The Ivey Memo showed that GM put profits over safety and ignored the safety advice of its own engineers.
Vehicle fires continue to be a problem for auto manufactures and drivers. Car companies need to continue to improve safety and prevent occupants from burning to death in vehicles.
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(c) Copyright 2011 Brett A. Emison
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