And Now, the Rest of the Story on Keyless Ignition

For more than two years, The Safety Record had sought to report the results of a 2014 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration keyless ignition compliance investigation that involved seven major automakers, and to have our Freedom of Information Act request to the agency be awarded media status.

Safety Research & Strategies Wins FOIA Case Against Florida DOT

A Leon County, Florida state judge has found that the state Department of Transportation violated the Public Records Act when it allowed guardrail manufacturer Trinity Industries to review thousands of emails involving Florida state officials before releasing them to Safety Research & Strategies.

The stipulated Final Judgment, signed on September 16 by Circuit Court Judge Angel C. Dempsey of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit, awards SRS $13,844.50 in legal fees and acknowledges that:

Safety Research & Strategies Sues FHWA for Guardrail Documents

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm, has sued the Federal Highway Administration for the public release of documents regarding the safety of guardrail end terminals used on highways nationwide. The ET-Plus model end terminals, manufactured by the Dallas-based Trinity Industries, have been allegedly linked to deaths and severe injuries, leading state and federal highway officials to question their efficacy and safety.

The civil lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the FHWA violated the Freedom of Information Act by improperly withholding records and failing to respond to two separate administrative appeals on the failure to release documents pertaining to the agency’s interactions with Trinity and with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. SRS originally sought the documents in November and January. 

Guardrail designs have evolved since the 1960s. Earlier designs used blunt ends that acted like a spear, penetrating the vehicle occupant compartment in a crash. The turned-down twist design of the 1970s buried the exposed ends, but acted like a ramp in a crash, causing vehicles to rollover. Today’s preferred design on some highways is the Energy-Absorbing End Terminal, which absorbs the crash energy, bends the end terminal away from the vehicle, and extrudes it through a slot into a flat metal ribbon. In the early 1990s, Texas A&M designed the ET-2000 in cooperation with the Texas Department of Transportation. Originally manufactured by Syro, Inc., the ET-2000, a variant of the Energy Absorbing End Terminal design, addressed some of the safety failures of earlier guardrail designs. The FHWA first approved the ET-2000 in the early 1990s, and its field performance was satisfactory.

Markey Calls for NHTSA Transparency

Documents released Wednesday by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey show that Wisconsin State Police came up with the same two-and-two as NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigation team during its 2007 investigation of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash that led to two deaths.  Too bad neither NHTSA nor GM thought they added up to four.

On October 24, 2006, Megan Ungar-Kerns, 17, was at the wheel of her 2005 Cobalt, returning from a trip to Walmart on a rural Wisconsin highway, when her vehicle suddenly drifted off the roadway at about 60 mph. The Cobalt hit a raised driveway and sailed through the air about 60 feet, before striking a telephone pole and two trees. The trio was not wearing their seatbelts and no airbags deployed. Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Lynn Radebaker died of their injuries. Ungar-Kerns survived with permanent injuries.

A crash investigation report issued by the Wisconsin State Police in February, noted the October 2006 GM Technical Service Bulletin about inadvertent power loss due to the ignition switch moving from the run to accessory position. They determined no other cause of the crash:

“The two front seat airbags did not deploy. It appears that the ignition switch had somehow been turned from the run position to accessory prior to the collision with the trees,” the report stated.

Markey released it and a few other documents that GM submitted to NHTSA, as part of the Death Investigation (DI), during a transportation appropriations hearing held by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx was the sole witness. The report didn’t add much new to the known narrative, but spotlighted legislation he has sponsored with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal requiring manufacturers to submit more detailed information to NHTSA in the event of a fatal crash.

The Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act “would require NHTSA make the information it receives from auto manufacturers publicly available in a searchable, user-friendly format so that consumers and independent safety experts can evaluate potential safety defects themselves,” according to a Markey news release.

EWR: Elective Warning Reports - When Manufacturers Don't Report Claims

Last week was a case of déjà vu all over again, to quote Mr. Yogi Berra, as NHTSA, and one of its “regulatory partners,” General Motors, faced their Congressional interlocutors, for the second performance of Safety Accountability Theater since 2000, when Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. Fourteen years ago, it was the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco that set all those hands a-wringing. Five years ago, it was Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Now, its GM ignition switches.

These come-to-Jesus gatherings were supposed to be obviated by the creation of the Early Warning Reporting (EWR) system. A major component of the TREAD Act, EWR requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage, warranty and other data to the government on a quarterly basis. It’s an honor system that depends on truthful reporters.

More than a year ago, SRS discovered three death and injury claims that had not been reported through EWR, and sought out NHTSA to confirm this apparent lapse and determine NHTSA’s policy toward manufacturers that did not submit reportable injury claims. As is usually the case when we try to help our favorite federal agency, SRS got crickets. And, as is usually the case in that circumstance, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what they did about the information we gave them, and the agency’s policy for ensuring that reportable claims were getting into the system.

As is usually the case, NHTSA said that it had practically no information to share. As is usually the case, SRS called B.S. filed an appeal, and when that failed, took it to the U.S. District Court. And, as is usually the case, NHTSA found more responsive materials.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge signed a Settlement Agreement between SRS and the DOT in which the government paid our legal fees. As is usually the case.

NHTSA’s “Tough” Stance on Ford Recall – Eight Years Too Late

Well, the agency’s done it again. No longer can reporters call a $17.3 million civil penalty against a manufacturer the “largest fine in agency history.” Nope, now it’s the new normal. This time it was Ford who got rapped with NHTSA’s multi-million dollar automaker swatter, over failing to recall 2001-2004 Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute vehicles to correct an earlier recall repair to the accelerator cable that actually exacerbated the original problem.

Did you follow that? If, not, don’t worry. We’re gonna lay it out in all of its glorious detail.

Like just about everything NHTSA does these days, the path to the fine follows a long roundabout route that reaches its crescendo in a high-profile death. In this case it was Saige Bloom, the 17-year-old driver of a 2002 Escape who died in an unintended acceleration crash in Payson, Arizona on January 27, 2012. Bloom was driving her new used car home, with her mother following in another car, after they purchased the Escape. Bloom lost control of the vehicle, which rolled over. Bloom died of her injuries in the hospital.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, which petitioned the agency to open a Recall Query after Bloom’s death, says that the monetary penalty didn’t go far enough.

“To me, if there was ever a case for a criminal penalty this was it. It meets the requirements of the TREAD act – there was a death,” Ditlow said “In fact, there have been at least three deaths. Who knows how many there are, in reality? There’s an 8-year gap between the first recall and the fine.”

But, as these things tend to go, there won’t be anything as shocking as a criminal prosecution, just a blip on the bottom line. Ford denied any responsibility in the settlement agreement. To quote:

The Safety Record Special Report: How Consumer’s Union Shocking Child Seat Tests Forced the Recall of the Evenflo Discovery

Editor’s note: The Safety Record spent more than a year seeking the documents related to Recall 08C002 involving Evenflo Discovery child restraint.  The Safety Record undertook this project because the defect was serious, resulting in a recall of more than 1 million seats. Yet, much the public record explaining how this recall came about was missing, and, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was not forthright in its actions or in its public statements in February 2008. The Safety Record is committed to ensuring that the public record is complete and to bringing transparency to NHTSA’s important regulatory and investigative activities in the interest of government accountability. Documents obtained following the successful settlement of Safety Research & Strategies litigation against NHTSA show that the Evenflo recall was the result of secret investigations and behind-the-scenes exchanges between the agency and Evenflo. This Special Report, in part, is based on these records.  

On September 19, 2005, Isaac Neal Eslinger died of his injuries in a rollover crash that occurred the day before. He was seven months old. His mother Debra was at the wheel of the family’s 1996 Isuzu Oasis van, travelling north on Highway 6 towards Mandan, North Dakota. According to the police report of the crash, the last thing Debra Eslinger remembered was glancing back at her daughter, before realizing that she had swerved onto the shoulder of the other side of the road. Debra tried to correct her steering, but lost control of the van. It rolled over and came to rest in a ditch on the east side of the highway.

Debra, who was wearing her seatbelt, and her three-year-old daughter, secured in a child safety seat, survived the crash without any injuries. The Evenflo Discovery infant seat holding Isaac, however, detached from its base in the crash. Isaac, still strapped in the seat, was pitched out of the van. He died of a skull fracture and head injury.

Isaac’s father, Neal Eslinger, a chiropractor in Bismarck, paid tribute to his only son on a blog he writes, called My Living Strength:

“Isaac has a spirit presence that warmed all hearts. He was a “master of smiling” as he displayed his prominent dimples, twinkling eyes and his unique laughs, giggles and squeaks. The mere glimpse of his mother or sound of her voice would bring a smile and a laugh that truly was an honor to witness. …Isaac was a gift from God and he always was and always will be “Our Little Angel.” Words cannot express the blessings he brought into our lives.”

Three weeks after the crash, on Oct. 7, 2005, Isaac Eslinger’s death in an Evenflo Discovery infant seat was reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fifteen months later, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation came looking for the crash report.

January 2007 would turn out to be a turning point for the popular infant carrier combination car seat. A controversial Consumer Reports story claimed that sled-tests showed that some models of the Discovery had a tendency to separate from its base under the stress of crash forces. This wasn’t actually news. A spate of infant deaths and injuries linked to base separations had initiated a low-level NHTSA investigation in 2004. But that probe was closed four months later with no defect finding.

NHTSA and Evenflo swiftly dispatched the Consumer Reports story by pointing out that its side-impact sled tests were actually conducted at a much higher rate of speed than the story claimed. Within weeks, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, printed a retraction, withdrew the story and apologized to its readers. But one year later, NHTSA and Evenflo announced that the juvenile products manufacturing firm was recalling 1.1 million Discovery infant carriers because testing by both parties showed that it could separate from its base in a side impact.

In the three-and-a-half year gap between the closing of the first investigation and the recall of the Discovery infant carrier were two secret NHTSA defects investigations into the infant carrier’s propensity for seat base separations, the discrediting of a consumer advocacy organization that attempted to raise the bar on child restraint safety, and more child injuries and deaths in crashes that resulted in base separations.

The recall was five years ago, but questions about its origins linger. Save a flurry of stories published about CU’s testing mistake and retraction, and fewer when the recall was announced a year later, the record surrounding this child safety defect has remained hidden from public view. Increasingly, this appears to be by design. NHTSA frequently hides the extent of its investigative activities and its negotiations with industry. If no formal Preliminary Evaluation or Engineering Analysis is opened, the public record is never established. This secrecy has been the subject of criticism by safety advocates, who say that it allows the agency to avoid accountability, and by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General. In an October 2011 audit, the OIG criticized the Office of Defects lack of documentation and transparency:

“Without comprehensive documentation of pre-investigation activities, ODI’s decisions are open to interpretation and questions after the fact, potentially undermining public confidence in its actions.” Noting NHTSA’s failure to document meetings with manufacturers, OIG recommended “a complete and transparent record system with documented support for decisions that significantly affect its investigations.”

In November 2011, Safety Research & Strategies filed a Freedom of Information Request for the communications between NHTSA and Evenflo surrounding February 2008 recall. When NHTSA responded that it had no such documents, SRS appealed – arguing that the simultaneous press releases issued by NHTSA and Evenflo showed that each entity knew about the other’s test results on the Discovery – evidence of communication between the two. In April, after NHTSA did not respond to SRS’s appeal, the company filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court to obtain the documents. In February, SRS and the Department of Transportation settled the lawsuit, after NHTSA released all of the documents it said were in its possession. The Department of Transportation paid SRS’s costs and legal fees of $14,281. 

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