GM’s fatal ignition switch scandal has once again brought the issue of automobile safety to the forefront. Like so many previous cases, a lawsuit has uncovered what is an unfortunately recognizable pattern: an automobile manufacturer discovers a defective design, but refuses to fix it or even warn regulators because it puts profits before people.

Up until the 1960s, car manufacturers were only held liable for defects in construction that resulted in accidents and had largely avoided responsibility for defects in design. Even when a design defect caused a car to burst into flames, manufacturers succeeded in persuading courts that “no duty exists to make an automobile fireproof.”

Manufacturers had a large body of knowledge proving that car design – particularly in regard to steering columns, dashboards, windshields and passenger restraints – was extremely unsafe to car occupants, but did nothing about it. Style was valued over safety. The cost of largely unnecessary styling changes amounted to, at the time, $700 per car, yet the average safety expenditure amounted to just 23 cents.

In the 1960s, court cases began highlighting the dangers of car design and the willful negligence of manufacturers in designing cars that they knew to be unsafe.

In 1964 in Michigan, David Larsen was driving a Chevy Corvair when he was involved in a head-on collision. The Corvair’s steering mechanism was thrust backwards, ramming the steering wheel into Larsen’s head. A court would hear that the Corvair’s steering mechanism consisted of a solid shaft that began less than three inches from the front of the car’s tires. The unabsorbed forces of a head-on crash were transmitted directly towards the driver’s head.

The Larsen case became a landmark decision. GM claimed they had no duty to design an automobile that would protect the occupant if an accident occurred. The court disagreed and thus sent a message that car manufacturers had to change their ways.

Today, there are nearly 10,000 fewer highway deaths per year than there were half a century ago. When vehicle miles traveled is taken into account, the ratio of fatalities is five times lower. In large part this is because of manufacturer accountability that was driven by the civil justice system.

The Facts:

  • Several car manufacturers, including GM and Ford, designed defective gas tank placement, which resulted in fires and explosions even in minor collisions. As a result of litigation, gas tanks are now universally located within rigid frames.
  • GM could have fixed their gas tanks for $8.40 per car, but calculated that paying for 500 fatal accidents would cost only $2.40 per car.
  • Tire manufacturers from Firestone to Goodyear tried to cover up problems with defective tires and have been held accountable in the courts. Firestone’s defective tires caused 271 deaths, and the resulting litigation brought tires and their manufacturers under increased scrutiny.
  • As early as 2001, GM knew that an ignition switch used in its cars was defectively designed and could allow the ignition to slip from the “run” position to the “accessory” position while the car was in motion, causing the engine to lose power and leaving the driver unable to adequately steer or brake.

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