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Federal Auto Safety Agency Did Nothing about Seatback Defects, Report Says


The Los Angeles Times published an article this week about the challenges faced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal auto safety agency that was created as a response to Ralph Nader’s career-making book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Nader’s 1965 book highlighted auto product defects and design defects, which plagued American automobiles. The NHTSA was the government’s answer to Nader’s valid questions.

But the Times article shows how in fact the agency has consistently failed since its inception. It takes the example of the seatback defect issue stating how NHTSA tried to fix the issue, but as always, buckled under pressure exerted by auto industry lobbyists. Like all other important auto product defect issues, the lack of seatback strength in most vehicles (American and Japanese), was also tabled by the NHTSA after auto industry lobbyists raised their meritless arguments.

The Issue of Seatback Failure

The auto product liability attorneys at Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys have represented and continue to represent injured victims who have been rendered paraplegic or quadriplegic or have suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of seatback defects in vehicles manufactured by most auto makers. We have fought on behalf of her mother whose daughter died in a rear-end accident after the seatback collapsed and struck her daughter on the chest. As the Times article points out, NHTSA looked at forcing auto makers to build stronger seats. But when auto makers objected (as they very often do) saying that more study and more research is needed, NHTSA shelved the seatback issue in 2004.

The issue of seatback failure is not a new or recent one. Renowned safety advocate Joan Claybrook looked at the seatback issue when she headed NHTSA under the Carter Administration. But when Reagan took over the reins of this nation, Claybrook was no longer head of the NHTSA and the issue of seatback safety once again got tossed out. However, American consumers still continue to suffer catastrophic injuries as a result of seatback collapse.

What’s the Problem with NHTSA?

The problem with NHTSA is that it is not a politically objective or neutral agency. NHTSA, on the other hand, is a political agency dedicated to political interests. Every time, there is a new administration, the agency’s head changes and the agency’s priorities change. Irrespective of which party is at the helm — Republican or Democrat — there is always political pressure from the well-paid lobbyists the auto industry hires.

The other problem with NHTSA is that their enforcement arm is limited to a handful of people. Sure, they can go ahead and make a whole lot of rules and standards. But, who is to enforce them? Some of the standards, such as the seatback standard, are so antiquated that they are a joke. There are certain cardboard boxes and lawn chairs, which can pass the current seatback standard. And that’s not an exaggeration. No wonder they cause serious and fatalities!

Failure to Test for Auto Product Defects

The auto industry has constantly come up with the argument that a seatback that is a stiff seatback is actually detrimental to vehicle occupant safety. The industry has contended that seat backs are meant to collapse and absorb energy to reduce injuries. But what evidence have they presented in all these years to prove that theory? None whatsoever and no one, including the NHTSA, has asked them to prove that theory.

But our firm has done extensive testing. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars testing vehicles for auto defects — something these auto makers should have done in the first place. We’ve repeatedly proven auto makers wrong on their theories and their seatback theory is no exception.

If you would like to find out more about the specifics of common vehicle defects that affect the lives of Americans every day, please order a copy of my book “Still Unsafe at Any Speed: Auto Defects That Cause Wrongful Deaths and Catastrophic Injuries.” You’ll find that many of the problems Ralph Nader was talking about in 1965 still exist. And you’ll also see why NHTSA hasn’t really accomplished what it set out to do.

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