Submersion Lawsuit Highlights Escape Design Gaps

On August 19, 2011, Washington Boulevard, a Pittsburgh thoroughfare built over a stream bed filled suddenly with nine feet of water, trapping Kimberly A. Griffith and her two daughters in their Chrysler minivan. Griffith, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, drowned in the minivan, unable to open the power windows, while the outside water pressure made it impossible to open the vehicle’s doors. Mary Safill, a 72-year-old woman who was also caught up in the flash flood on Washington Street, managed to escape her car, but drowned in the torrent.

Earlier this month, the law firm of Swensen, Perer & Kontos filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims’ families. The civil action names eight defendants, including Chrysler for failing to warn consumers about the hazards of vehicle submersion and for a failure to implement escape technology.

Motor vehicle submersions are small but significant portion of motor vehicle deaths.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, using the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the National Automotive Sampling System – Crashworthiness Data Systems (NASS-CDS) has reported that an average of 384 occupants die in motor vehicle crashes each year – not including those that occur during floods. An internal NHTSA analysis of non-flooding submersion deaths showed that most occurred as the result of a collision or rollover, that the windows were already smashed by impacts, and that most occupants were already injured before the vehicle hit the water. 

In the published version of the NHTSA research, Drowning Deaths In Motor Vehicle Traffic Accidents, author Rory Austin says the little is known about drowning deaths that occur as the result of a traffic crash. His analysis found that “63 percent of the passenger vehicle drowning fatalities involved a rollover, and 12 percent involved a collision with another motor vehicle. The most common passenger vehicle crash scenario was a single-vehicle rollover accounting for 59 percent of the fatalities. These crashes frequently involved running off the road and colliding with a fixed object prior to the rollover and immersion. In cases with known restraint use, the victim was not using any form of restraint system 52 percent of the time.”

Research by Gordon Giesbrecht and Gerren McDonald of the University of Manitoba concluded the opposite: “Many, if not most, victims die from drowning rather than from trauma.” In some industrialized nations, such as New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. motor vehicle submersions. account for a significant proportion of all accidental drowning deaths – from 7 to 11.6 percent Giesbrecht and McDonald call motor vehicle submersions the deadliest type of single vehicle crash.

Thoroughly Modern Tire Dealer – Not.

Bob Ulrich’s column If the TIA is the Puppet Master is NHTSA the Puppet? in February 14ths Modern Tire Dealer, casts me as an impatient crusader who has single-handedly ginned up a non-existent controversy about the dangers of tire age and used tires in the service of trial lawyers.

The issue of tire age surfaced in the U.S. in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone Wilderness ATX. In 2003, NHTSA fulfilled a Congressional mandate by initiating a tire age rulemaking, which sought manufacturers’ comments. The industry did not exactly distinguish itself. Its responses ranged from denial of any problem to ignorance of testing, analysis or the very concept of tire age.

Our research showed that industry was studying rubber oxidation and heat as early as the 1930s. We also located a pair of German studies from the 1980s which concluded that tires failed at a greater rate after six years and recommended manufacturers alert consumers to prevent potential crashes. We identified the vehicle and tire makers who followed that advice, publishing tire age recommendations as early as the 1990s. Not one industry representative alerted the agency to wealth of information it had about tire age.   

Tire Aging: Is NHTSA Ready to Make Policy?

Last month, at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual government-industry conference, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety standards engineer presented a summary of the agency’s tire aging work, which continues despite not producing any regulatory changes.

The issue that took center stage more than a decade ago, in the wake of the Ford Firestone rollover scandal. The deadly Firestone tires at the center of the controversy met the federal safety standards but nonetheless were de-treading at high rates after several years in service.  In 2001, Congress suggested that the agency consider the feasibility of a tire aging test, and the agency and Ford embarked on a series of experiments to create an artificial oven-aging test for tires. In 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users directed the Secretary of Transportation document NHTSA’s progress on tire aging research, and its findings and recommendations. The agency’s 2007 report to Congress did not make any policy recommendations, but did allow that it was “evaluating the feasibility of a regulation related to tire aging by analyzing the safety problem (tire aging as a significant causal factor in crashes) and potential benefits and costs of a requirement for minimum performance based on an aging method.”

Six years later, no policy and the tire aging docket NHTSA opened in 2005 is officially closed for comments. But the agency (and Safety Research & Strategies -- see SRS Tire Safety) continues to file the results of its tire age research periodically. (The most recent agency submission was in July 2012, a report entitled: “Tire Aging Testing Phase 5.”) Could NHTSA’s Dr. Merisol Medri’s SAE presentation herald the arrival of a rulemaking? Her Powerpoint was not released, (click here for a copy) but our ears perked up at this slide:

“Based on analysis of data from 2005-2007 including databases (NMVCCS, GES, CDS), 90 fatalities and over 3,200 injuries occurred annually as the result of crashes that were probably caused by tire aging or where tire aging was a significant factor.”

This statistic stands out against the agency’s numerical analysis offered in the 2007 Research Report to Congress on Tire Aging: “From 1994 to 2004, NHTSA estimates that about 400 fatalities, annually, may be attributed to tire failures of all types.”

Doing the rough math -- does this mean that about quarter of the annual tire-related fatalities are due to tire age? And, how did NHTSA arrive at that figure? Tire Identification Numbers (TIN) – the only way to discern a tire’s age – are not available in the public version of some of those datasets. (We are aware that NHTSA has begun to collect TINs for some sub-sets of crash data.) According to Medri the agency will be publishing a more detailed account of its research in a new report that will be published in the tire aging docket, at some unspecified time.

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