What Happened to High Safety Standards for Vans?

Nearly four million motorists will buy pickup trucks, vans or other multi-purpose passenger vehicles during the next 12 months. However, very few know that these vehicles do not meet even the modest safety standards that the U.S. Department of Transportation has required of passenger cars since 1968.

This difference means, for example, that a driver in a light pickup truck or van can take 100 feet more to stop at 55 mph than is the case with a four-door passenger sedan. That difference can create a safety hazard that results in a rear-end collision or other kinds of crashes.

Since the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 covers all kinds of motor vehicles, why has this disparity in safety persisted? The slippage started at the outset when the first government auto safety standards were issued in January 1967. At that time, the auto companies pressured the government to postpone many safety standards for vehicles other than cars. Delay has turned into flagrant dereliction by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Seeing an ever larger loophole for these faster and faster selling pickups and vans, the auto companies tied up NHTSA in a web of vehicle classification definitions that proved too much for former NHTSA administrators Douglas Toms and James Gregory, whose unproductive tenure covered roughly the years 1970 to 1976.

To this day, without justification, NHTSA does not require pickup trucks, vans or other multi-purpose passenger vehicles to meet major safety standards that have long applied to passenger cars.

These standards include braking performance, interior padding, head restraints, impact-absorbing steering columns for driver protection in front-end crashes, side door strength when struck by other vehicles, and roof crash resistance in roll-over accidents.

Since NHTSA has claimed repeatedly that passenger car safety standards save lives and prevent injuries, it follows that the same results would hold true for these other vehicles. Moreover, accident-injury data indicate that motorists involved in pickup or van crashes have higher casualty exposures than those in passenger car crashes.

When Joan Claybrook was appointed head of NHTSA in April 1977, she called extension of safety standards to pickup trucks and vans a high priority. So, what happened next?

In June, the agency exempted these vehicles from the important passive restraint standards (which includes air bags) that all passenger automobiles have to meet by 1983. Thus the double standard not only continues, it has worsened. Worth recalling is that before GM decided to stonewall passive restraint efforts by NHTSA, GM President Edward Cole in 1970 informed the government that air bags would be on all GM light trucks and vans by the fall of 1974.

Claybrook now says that some safety standards for light trucks and vans will be proposed in September. But, actual adoption time for the more important safety requirements won’t occur until the mid-1980s. It may even take longer, should NHTSA continue to adjust necessary safety schedules to the leisurely production schedules of the auto industry. To make matters more dilatory, NHTSA engineers are not known to go to work every day with a sense of lifesaving urgency.

In early July, the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, issued a stinging criticism of NHTSA’s neglect of pickup truck and van safety needs. With uncharacteristically readable prose and many pictures of these vehicles, the GAO report covers one standard after another than has been applied to cars but not to other light passenger vehicles. Throughout this little publicized report, NHTSA’s stubborn, if not stupid, responses were duly noted and countered.

The GAO investigators strongly urged that NHTSA comply with existing law and require the auto industry to make readily available to customers safety information concerning which standards do and do not apply to light trucks and vans.

They charged NHTSA has not fulfilled the congressional mandate that “information be provided to consumers about the relative safety afforded to occupants of various vehicles involved in crashes.”

Taking refuge in the shopworn response to accurate criticisms, NHTSA told GAO that it is working on most of these problems. The GAO observed that it has heard all these assurances before and sees “little actual movement” now. In the meantime, more people are buying these pickups and vans unaware of the dangers due to the absence of government safety standards. NHTSA’s lethargic engineering bureaucracy continues to carry the day.

(Consumers can obtain a copy of this useful GAO report by writing to the General Accounting Office, Room 1518, 441 G Street N.W., Washington DC 20548, and requesting Report No. CED-78-119, July 6, 1978. Single copies are free.)

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