The American Automobile Designed for Death?

The American Automobile Designed for Death?

by Ralph Nader

Harvard Law Record

Originally Published: December 11, 1958

It was a bright summer day when Robert Burelson was driving home with his wife and three small children from a vacation trip. He had just entered Mint Canyon near Los An­geles when suddenly an automobile veered across the road into his path. A split second later, Burelson, his family and the two occupants of the other car became statistics for the annual national motor-vehicle fatality count of some 40,000 victims. Other statistics will record at least 110,000 permanent disability cases, 1,500,000 injuries and $5 billion of direct mone­tary cost. They will not record the toll of pain, anguish, wasted talent and devastated hopes suffered by the dead, the maimed, their kin and American society in general.

The tragedy of the highway blood bath extends to the callousness and apathy of the public’s reaction to this vast accident-injury problem. The fa­talism inherent in the common description of the fatalities and injuries as products of “accidents,” thereby implying the inevitable working of the law of averages, has paralyzed our sensibilities and deprived most of us of our normal sense of shock at the sight or even thought of mutilation and violent death. It also appears to have hindered action geared to cope realistically with a perennial crisis of such magnitude.

The programs of our public au­thorities and interested private or­ganizations have been of minimum efficacy. To try to stem the tide that has claimed over 1,150,000 victims and injured countless millions since 1899, more driver education and stronger enforcement of traffic laws have been urged.

Education consists, by and large, in the unimaginative and incessant re­iteration ad nauseam by press and by radio of the hackneyed safety slogans with their hollow ring of “drive slow­ly,” “when you drink, don’t drive,” “take a coffee break,” and all the other advice that John Doe thinks applies to the other fellow.

Enforcement concentrates on im­partiality, on requiring more literal observance of traffic laws many of which are obsolete, inadequate and actually contribute to the accident-injury toll.

These programs of education and enforcement should not be judged too harshly. They have taken enlightened forms such as the driver training courses and state motor vehicle in­spections. Though difficult to meas­ure, approaches such as these have contributed to some reduction of the accident rate by concentrating on con­ditions that cause accidents.

But the problem of causation of motor vehicle accident-injuries is only the beginning, not the end of under­standing. Causal factors and condi­tions can be enumerated indefinitely from our birth rate to the fatal side glance at an alluring female. A more fertile inquiry could be phrased this way: “Our primary objective is to reduce fatalities and injuries; what are the principal avoidable causes that contribute to these casualties?”

Conception of the problem in this manner recognizes that efforts at en­forcement and education center on accident-prevention rather than injury-prevention. It is true that preventing the accident prevents the injury. But is such emphasis realistic in its exclusive concern? Erratic and mistaken judgment in driving will always be characteristic, to some de­gree, of highway behavior though its incidence can be reduced.

Two Collisions

Most vehicular accidents can be considered as two separate collisions. First, the striking of the vehicle with another object and second, the strik­ing by the occupant against the in­terior components of the vehicle (such as the steering wheel, dashboard, knobs, rear view mirror) or ejection through the door opened by the im­pact.

It is this second impact of the occu­pant against the inside of his car that does the killing and injuring, and there is nothing accidental about this.

Automobile accidents and automobile injuries are not synonymous even though chronologically related. Accidents may occur as a result of poor judgment, mechanical failure, and highway conditions, but none of these actually causes the passenger injury which occurs primarily because of faulty in­terior automotive design.

There is almost no feature of the interior design of the car that provides for safety in the event of a collision. Doors flying open on impact, inadequately secured seats, the protruding steering wheel hub, the sharp edged rear view mirror, pointed knobs, shape of the dashboard, the overhead structure are examples of the lethal effect of poor design and, or location.

A sudden deceleration turns a collapsed steering wheel or a sharp-edged dashboard into knife-like bone and chest crushing in­struments. There are less obvious dangers like the apparently harmless glove compart­ment door. Under impact, these doors have been known to unlatch and drop down to become an unsheathed guillotine to decapi­tate a child or crush an adult’s chest. A flying seat cushion can cause a fatal injury.

Car roof supporting structure has deteri­orated in recent years to a point where it provides scarcely more protection to the oc­cupants in a roll-over accident than does an open convertible. Two investigators were able to peel the roof off a new 1952 automobile merely by using their hands and heavy gloves.

The automobile is not being designed to be an efficient force moderator. For example, the bumper of the car does not contribute significantly to reduction of the crash deceleration forces that are transmitted to the motorist.

The above examples and many more are not the product of imaginative prediction but are taken from the automotive crash and testing researches of various private groups including the Automotive Crash Injury Re­search of the Cornell University Medical College, the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering of the University of Cal­ifornia, Motor Vehicle Research, Inc. of South Lee, New Hampshire and Cornell Aeronauti­cal Laboratory, Inc. of Buffalo, N. Y.

Careful coverage of all available published papers and reports of these and other researches and experiments have not revealed a single dissent from the propositions that

(a) there are direct causal relationships be­tween automotive design and the frequency, type and severity of injuries

(b) the tolerance studies of the human body to abrupt deceleration show that the forces in many accidents now fatal are within the physiological limits of survival under proper conditions

(c) engineering improvement in safety design and restraining devices would materi­ally reduce the injury and fatality rate (estimates range from 20 to 30 thousand lives saved annually)

(d) redesign of injury causing automotive components are are based on elementary prin­ciples of physics and well within the capa­bilities of present engineering technique without the necessity for radical changes in present style

(e) many design improvements have al­ready been developed but are not in production

The Cornell-Liberty Safety Car, an exhibi­tion automobile embodying over 60 new safe­ty concepts which enable an occupant to withstand a head-on collision at 50 mph with, at most, only minor scratches, was developed by Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory with only a tiny fraction of the annual advertising bud­get of Buick.


The remarkable advances in crash protection knowledge and engineering achieved by these private organizations at a cost of less than $5 million stand in marked contrast to the glacier-like movements of the automobile manufacturers.

Automobiles have been designed for style, cost, performance, calculated obsolescence, but not in anticipation that they will be in­volved in a crash despite figures showing over 5,000,000 reported accidents yearly. It has been been due to lack of skill, the industry possesses many highly skilled but frustrated safety engineers whose suggestions invari­ably take a backseat to those of the stylist. It has not been lack of notice — since the early thirties engineers have urged the re­design of the car structure for crash worthi­ness. In 1938, an expert had the following to say:

The motor industry and its corps of de­signers and engineers must face the fact that accidents occur. It is their duty, there­fore, to so design the interiors of automo­biles that when the passenger is tossed around, he will get an even break and not suffer a preventable injury. It is not beyond the realm of reason to expect that in an interior designed for perfect safety a pas­senger may experience no more than a shaking up in many kinds of accidents that today are taking a heavy toll of life and limb.

— H. Armand, 75 Safety Engineering 19.

Nearly 500,000 fatalities later, in 1954, a UCLA engineer, after mentioning safety glass and all steel bodies as principal ad­vances in the early thirties in collision pro­tection, could conclude that:

There has been no significant automotive engineering contribution to the safety of motorists since about the beginning of World War II; rather the emphasis has been on comfort, and performance.

In 1956 Ford initiated some interior safe­ty designs with the rest of the industry following. However, styling has still remained the dominant consideration in these improve­ments, the effectiveness of many of which are still controversial. Tests have failed to es­tablish, for example, an advantage for the deep-dish steering wheel compared with the wheel having a hub, spokes and rim in the same plane. The motorist will still collapse the rim to the hub.

The half-hearted attempts at safety design in 1956-57 have largely disappeared. “A square foot of chrome sells ten times more cars than the best safety door latch,” declared one industry representative. It should be added in passing that most foreign car makes offer far less protection to the motorist than American models.


It will not suffice for the manufacturers to say that they build what the consumer demands. The average consumer is not in a position to know of the inter-relations between design and injury. He does not think of collision performance upon stepping into the showroom. Even if he wishes to protest, how can he make it effective when one model is as unsafe as another and there are no alternatives open for selecting one manufacturer over another?

The “too little too late” efforts by the industry in safety design have been blown up by advertising campaigns to brainwash the consumer into thinking that progress has been phenomenal. He has been indoctrinated into believing that main attention should be given to stricter enforcement and better driving habits. Consumer opinion is as much formed by industry advertisement as it is generated independently. The consumer is tutored to want the type of styling that brings in the greatest sales with the minimum cost regardless of safety.

Even if all the facts were laid before the public without a consequent increase in con­sumer demand for safety design (which is unlikely), the manufacturers should not be relieved of the obligation to build safety into cars. There are innumerable precedents where the public has had to be protected from its own indiscretion and vanity.

The problem of educating the public con­cerning the relation between automotive de­sign and highway casualties is fraught with difficulties. The press, radio and television have not and are not likely to undertake this task when millions are being poured into their coffers by the advertising programs of the industry. What little information has been disseminated has appeared in small circulation publications for the technical or hobby market. Even here there has been little evaluation of the significance of these facts in terms of industry responsibility.

Private Disgust

Private researchers, such as those men­tioned previously, have been reluctant to stray from their scholarly and experimental pursuits, especially when cordial relations with the industry is necessary to continue their projects with the maximum of success. The manufacturers have thought it best to cooperate with some of these programs and in one instance have given financial support. This policy is bearing fruits; most of the investigators discreetly keep their private disgust with the industry’s immobility from seeping into the public limelight.

For the past two years, a Special House Subcommittee on Traffic Safety has been conducting extensive hearings on automobile design. The industry and research organiza­tions have all submitted their testimony and reports. Some sensational facts came out of these hearings but the press, despite perfect copy material, chose to ignore them.

The Subcommittee is proceeding at too cautious a pace in view of the urgency of the problem. It has been too solicitous of recommendations to wait for more basic research by some investigators who see automotive design more from the viewpoint of engineering perfection than from that of a national health emergency requiring immediate even if not perfect engineering remedy.

Dr. Shelden, writing one of the numerous articles on the subject that has appeared in recent years in the medical journals focuses on the issue well:

The automobile industry has an important public health and welfare problem on hands …The industry could decide the entire matter without outside intervention, but, considering their past performance with regard to safety devices. I doubt seriously if there is any likelihood of such an occurrence. If left to them, a new but minor change would be made each year as fitted their overall plan, as has been done in exterior styling and design. Such a delaying action may be a satisfactory policy in business but not in a matter of health and public safety. Translated into medicine, it would be com­parable to withholding known methods of life-saving value…

In the case of automobile safety devices, the need is recognized and the design changes are known, but there the whole pro­gram grinds to a discouraging halt. The known hazards in interior design should be eliminated immediately. Over the years, new and better methods can be developed, tested, and installed to replace the earlier methods . . . Every facet of automotive safety does not have to he statistically proved before improvements in design are made. Every possible source of injury should be considered and some attempt made to eliminate each particular hazard. The change this ear may have to he modified in a year or two, but at least during this time the public will have had added protection. — 159 Journal of the American Medical Association 985-6

Coping with dangerous automotive design does not involve the framing of new concepts of responsibility for the manufacturing of products for the national market. The pro­tection of the public through legislative con­trol of safety measures is well established. For example, meat must pass federal inspection before distribution; dangerous drugs cannot be dispensed without a licensed phy­sician’s prescription; airline, railroads and other interstate carriers are required to meet safety standards regarding their equipment. There is compulsory periodic inspection of motor vehicles in many states. Yet there are no federal statutes or regulations establishing minimum design standards for the manufac­turers of automobiles known to be faulty in safety design and known to be a major contributor to an epidemic disease taking 40,000 lives a year.


Competition within the industry does not work, in this area, for public safety. One manufacturer is hesitant to initiate safety design changes that might add to the cost of production without a commensurate enhance­ment of the model’s selling power, while the company’s competitor increases its share of the market by an imaginative new twist to the fin structure.

Recourse to the courts for judgment against a manufacturer by a plaintiff injured by the defective interior design of his car while involved in an accident stands a dim chance a success. While courts have ex­tended the MacPherson doctrine of defective construction to products defectively designed, the closest they have come in motor vehicle cases has been to hold the manufacturer liable for defective design of a component that was instrumental in causing the accident (e.g., defective braking system design, center of gravity of the vehicle too high, etc.).

As far as this writer could determine, there have been no reported cases involving the issue of manufacturer’s liability for de­fective interior design as the traumatic agent in causing the injury to a plaintiff involved in an accident caused by the negligence of a third party.

The problems of proof, of obtaining evi­dence and expert witnesses willing to testify are tremendous.

Defective automotive design can not be properly dealt with by the limited authority and resources of the judiciary, although a few decisions in this area might provide some incentive for the industry to improve design. By all relevant criteria, a problem with such sweep, technicalities and ramifications can best be handled by the legislative process with delegation to an appropriate adminis­trative body. It remains to be seen whether the necessary elan, so long absent, will be generated by our public representatives.

(Note: Space limitation prevents discussion of design defects that contribute to accidents, such as the terrific visual distortion of the wrap-around windshield, leakage of carbon monoxide, rear end fishtailing in hard turns, undue brake fade and dozens more.)

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