After weeks of delay, he handed his death-producing decision to his subordinates to announce and went on a travel junket to Japan. Such behavior is in character for outgoing Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt. Having overruled his own auto-safety agency’s advice to order the recall of 10 million defective Ford vehicles which have a propensity for moving backward suddenly, Goldschmidt did not want to confront the inquiring press.
He would have had a hard time answering the reporters’ questions. Did not the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), his own auto-safety agency, make an initial determination that all Ford vehicles manufactured between 1970 and 1979 and equipped with PMX, C-3, C-4, C-6 or JATCO automatic transmissions contained a safety-related defect? The agency said that this defect caused “sudden and unexpected movement of unattended vehicles which has resulted in accident, injury and death.” The NHTSA took note of “over 23,000 complaints of such spontaneous shifting (from park to reverse) and more than 100 fatal accidents and more than 1,700 non-fatal injuries allegedly caused by the apparent defect.”
Even more difficult for Goldschmidt to answer is why he ignored internal 1971 and 1972 Ford Motor Co. memos which recognized the hazard, proposed solutions and, in one instance, estimated an assembly line correction cost of three cents per vehicle. Ford engineer D.R. Dixon put it this way: “Present customer usage patterns indicate that this condition of careless shift lever actuation is occurring frequently in the field with actual high accident incidence. It is recommended that forward design and development be directed toward a feasible alternative which positively positions the shift lever in park or reverse, to prevent a false sense of security as to transmission position.”
Secretary Goldschmidt was not even impressed by internal 1978 technical reports from Chrysler and General Motors. The two automakers’ engineers showed that the transmissions in their vehicles could not induce a park to reverse slippage the way the Ford transmission design could.
Twenty million Ford vehicles on the road today contain this transmission problem; half of them reflect a more serious slippage potential. Goldschmidt need only walk a few yards to his department’s files of letters from thousands of frightened and indignant Ford motorists describing injuries, fatalities, near-misses, smashed property.
Instead of approving his auto-safety experts’ recommendation to require that 10 million of these cars be fixed, Goldschmidt went along with Ford Motor Co. He entered into an agreement with former Transportation Secretary William Coleman, a lawyer who represented Ford, to have the company send a warning to Ford owners. The letter will include a safety warning label which owners are urged to permanently affix to their dashboards. It tells the driver to make sure the gear selector is engaged in park, to set the parking brake fully and to shut off the ignition.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety called Goldschmidt’s decision both “illegal and a farce.” He explained: “It’s illegal because the Safety Act requires recalls for repair, it does not provide for recalls to give precautions. The action is a farce because the department knows that consumer warnings do not prevent the fatalities and injuries that will occur.”
Ditlow’s files are bulging with letters of outrage from Ford car owners. They show that the victims of this vehicle defect usually are the old and the very young, those least able to scramble out of the way. They also reveal serious injuries occurring where a parked Ford with the engine off slips from park into reverse and rolls down a slight grade to strike and unsuspecting bystander, as in the fatal case of five-year-old Rick Knighton of Sacramento, Ca.
Ford Motor Co. claims that backward-darting Fords move because of driver error. Goldschmidt accepted this assertion against reams of accident data, human factors engineering practices and internal Ford documents showing that the proper remedy is an engineering one.
On Dec. 31, 1980, the day Goldschmidt had his underlings announce his cowardly decision, the press reported the death of an 80-year-old man in Syracuse, N.Y. His body was pinned against his garage door by his 1977 Ford. On Jan. 2, Mrs. Ronald Volesky of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wrote Congressman Thomas J. Tauke, R-Iowa, about her Bronco lunging back through a neighbor’s garage. “I cannot believe the government is letting Ford get off so lightly,” she said.
Goldschmidt leaves office Jan. 20 to return to Oregon and start a new political career. Before he leaves Washington, he should accept Ditlow’s invitation to meet with a delegation of accident survivors and relatives of victims of this dangerous defect. They want to look him in the eye and ask why.
(Ford car owners can report their experiences to the Center for Auto Safety, 1346 Connecticut Ave., Washington, D.C., 20036, or to the federal auto safety agency through the toll-free hotline 1-800-424-9393.)