NHTSA Issues Eighth Consumer Advisory about Dangers of 15-Passenger Vans

On March 1, the Epicenter of Worship Church held a prayer vigil for Omberi Erasto, the 18-year-old East Lansing High School student who died in a 15-passenger van rollover crash last month. Erasto was one of 17 occupants in a 2002 Chevrolet Express homeward bound on I-96 after a choir performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The left rear tire of the Express failed, leading to a loss-of-control crash that left several passengers severely injured, including Erasto’s younger sister, who lost her leg.

Two weeks later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, issued yet another warning about the proper use of a 15 passenger van, in advance of the “spring driving season.” The agency is, once again, urging “colleges, church groups, and other users of 15-passenger vans to take specific steps to keep drivers and passengers safe.”

This is the agency’s eighth consumer advisory about the dangers of 15-passenger vans since 2001. The number one tip? Never overload a 15-passenger van because they “are particularly sensitive to loading.”

Funny, though, the agency neglects to define “overload” for the consumers they presumably want to warn. Fifteen-passenger vans have the dubious distinction of being a vehicle that is inherently unsafe if used for its intended purpose. Back in 2001, the agency issued specific information related to overloading, and emphasized the deadly consequences of failing to heed this warning:

Burning Question: Why are Some Manufacturers Investigated for Door Fires, Others Not?

Karen Swicker’s used 2002 Subaru Outback was new to her – less than a year old, when the driver’s side door ignited as she drove look along a Newburyport, Massachusetts road on February 16. The first puff of smoke sent her to the side of the road. As she came to a stop, the wisps had turned to a cloud. When the Fire Department pulled the door off, it burst into flames, and fire fighters had to cut the electrical wires from the harness.

This might have made a memorable entry in Subaru’s new marketing campaign, First Car Story, in which a driver can used an automated computer program with music and graphics to wax poetic about the elderly El Dorado with the duct-taped bumper that ferried him and his friends to the malt shop.

As Alan Bethke, Subaru of America’s director of marketing communications said in a statement: “The First Car Story campaign provides a creative outlet for reliving those unique, funny, unforgettable car experiences anyone who had a first car can relate to.”

Another CO Smart Key Death... and what Happens when Smart Keys Collide?

Tell us again why electronic keys are an automotive technology advance?  Apparently, they’re so great that our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has to re-write the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 (in a ham-handed way) to accommodate them.  And so super-duper that these new electronic ignition system vehicles are introducing new hazards that are killing and injuring consumers.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office is investigating last week’s carbon monoxide poisoning deaths of Adele Ridless and Mort Victor. The couple is suspected to have succumbed to a build-up of carbon monoxide emanating from their Mercedes with a keyless ignition, parked in an attached garage. The sheriff’s office declined comment pending the outcome of their investigation.

Toyota – whose clever keyless ignition system has been implicated in at least two other carbon monoxide deaths – last month issued a Technical Service Bulletin noting that two “Smart Keys” from different vehicles in close proximity can knock the system for a loop. The February 24 notice covers some 2011 and 2012 Lexus models:

“Some 2011 and 2012 Lexus models may exhibit a condition where the Smart Key system is inoperative when another vehicle’s Smart key is in or near the vehicle. The following functions may also be affected: wireless remote operation, Smart access, and Smart start. The combination meter multi-information display may show the message: “Key not detected” when attempting to start vehicle and when driving.”

What are they talking about? NHTSA and the automakers have told us that the key in an electronic system is an invisible code inside the vehicle’s ignition module. So does that mean if you park next to another Toyota or some other manufacturer with an electronic ignition, your shiny new Lexus won’t start? Wow, that’s going to make parking in public lots a whole lot tougher.

Toyota Throws a Hissy

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 aired a six-minute-plus story about a 2006 confidential Toyota document showing that a pre-production vehicle in Japan experienced an unintended acceleration. The vehicle was an overseas model, identified as the 250L, equipped with adaptive cruise control. Its U.S. counterpart did not use that system, but the internal report did note that a “fail-safe overhaul” would be needed for another production vehicle that was sold in the U.S. -- the Toyota Tundra.

Toyota tried to fight off the story with the survival instinct of a 1,000-lb. blue marlin at the end of a reel and tackle. Its central argument was that the document had been mistranslated and the condition noted in the pre-production test had nothing to do with unintended acceleration. The automaker trotted out English language speaker and Toyota entertainment systems engineer Kristin Tabar to rebut the translation’s literal and substantive meaning. CNN paid a Japanese translation house with experience in automotive technical documents to take a crack at it, and its version was pretty similar to the first English translation. (You can watch the story here.)

There were a series of legal parleys, but when the dust settled, Toyota lost, the story aired and the public relations team was left with nothing but its poison pen. In high dudgeon, Toyota complained about CNN’s unmitigated temerity to suggest the Toyota has been less than truthful in discussing all of the possible causes of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

The Heavy Price of a Delayed Recall

Goodyear has notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it is recalling 40,915 Wrangler Silent Armor flagship tires, more than a year after the company observed a higher rate of warranty and property damage claims, and three months after two Texas college students died in a tire failure that precipitated a rollover crash.

The August 1, 2011 incident claimed the lives of Matthew Smith and his passenger Kerrybeth Hall, as Smith drove southbound on U.S. Highway 67 in Pecos County, Texas. The left rear Wrangler Silent Armor tire on the 2008 Ford F-150 pickup de-treaded, causing the pick-up to skid and rollover. Smith was fatally ejected from the F-150. Hall, who was properly restrained, also suffered fatal injuries in the crash.

“I think Goodyear was getting lot of warranty claims, but said, ‘Let’s see what happens,” says David T. Bright, an attorney with Sico, White, Hoeschler & Braugh of Corpus Christi, TX, who represents Gerry Lynn Wilkinson, Kerrybeth’s mother, in the civil case against Goodyear. “Then Goodyear waited another 12 months, and decided:  Hang on. Let’s wait a while longer. And three months later, these two people got killed.”

According to documentation Goodyear filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on February 22, the tiremaker had first noticed elevated property damage and warranty claims for the Wrangler Silent Armor tire, during its May 2010 review of Early Warning Data. Over the next 12 months, the company would continue to see high levels of warranty and property damage claims specifically for six sizes of the tires produced at its Fayetteville plant. But Goodyear still resisted a recall, passing off the uptick as isolated cases caused by “stone drilling damage and other external damage to the tires.”

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