ABC Exposes Broken Tire Safety System

Yesterday, ABC’s Nightline and Good Morning America took two issues that Safety Research & Strategies has been chipping away at for a decade, and gave them big play: the broken tire recall system and tire age. Producer Cindy Galli and investigative reporter Brian Ross, working with reporters at local ABC affiliates, bought recalled and very old tires, told victims’ stories and skewered the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association.

The stories raised a number of key issues:

• The tire recall system doesn’t work: Recalled tires aren’t always caught by retailers and there is no quick, easy or efficient way for any consumer or tire technician to check the recall status of a tire.
• Aged tires are sold and put into service unknowingly because the date code is buried in the Tire Identification Number, and expressed in a non-standard format. Tire age recommendations by vehicle and tire makers are not well known to service professionals or consumers.
• The tiremakers’ trade group, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) has conceded that the tire recall system does need improvement, but continues to maintain that tire age has no bearing on safety, and has fought off regulations to keep old tires off the road.

ABC highlighted the National Transportation Safety Board’s first tire safety investigation into a February crash that killed two and injured seven members of the First Baptist Church in New Port Richey, Florida, when a two-year-old left rear recalled BF Goodrich tire suffered a tread separation. The tire had been recalled in July 2012. The NTSB is also investigating a second fatal incident involving an aged tire. With its investigative powers and advisory role to other regulatory agencies on safety policy, the NTSB’s recommendations have the potential to be a game-changer. Will the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration listen?

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.

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.

Tire Age Crusade in UK Begins

Advocacy has always been a long game. Frances Molloy, the mother of a young British musician who died in a bus crash caused by a the failure of a 19-year-old tire, has met her first hurdle in a letter from the Secretary of State for Transport, declining to take any immediate action to limit the age of tires fitted on commercial buses.

Secretary Patrick McLoughlin held out the possibility of a more comprehensive action “including - possibly - through the imposition of restrictions on the use of tyres above a certain age via the existing vehicle inspection regime,” but said more research needed to be done.

“He’s given a lot of words,” Molloy says. “There’s nothing in this response. It’s just basically, I will commission research. Research is a delaying tactic. It’s stalling. We already know tires have a shelf life.”

McLoughlin met with Molloy and David Price, an expert in crash forensic analysis, on November 20 to talk about policy responses to the death of 18-year-old son Michael Molloy, who died in September 2012 with another 23-year-old passenger and the driver in a bus crash caused by the catastrophic failure of a tire with legal tread depth, but was 19-and-a-half-year-old. The tire had been purchased secondhand by Merseypride Travel, which owned the 52-seat coach. Michael’s death has resulted in posthumous honors involving his passion for music, but Frances Molloy is aiming for a comprehensive policy change.

McLoughlin’s letter to Maria Eagle, a member of the House of Commons representing the Molloy’s neighborhood in Liverpool, makes clear that the rubber industry’s reluctance to acknowledge its own long-held technical research on the relationship between rubber age and robustness took precedence. McLoughlin wrote:

“Although research is limited, it is clear to me that the association between the age of a tyre and its structural integrity is not fully understood. I noted the advice that Mr Price provided in our meeting but also recognise that the tyre industry suggests that other factors such as the maintenance of correct inflation pressures, regular use, and inspection for damage are more critical than a single limit on the age of a tyre. I have noted research from the USA that indicates artificially-aged tyres can fail safety tests but also note that their study replicated conditions of high ambient temperature and therefore cannot necessarily be directly related to conditions of use found here in the UK.”

Will the UK Be the First with a Tire Age Rule?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had an open rulemaking docket on tire age degradation (i.e., thermo-oxidative aging) since 2003, but will the UK beat the U.S. to actual tire age legislation? Frances Molloy isn’t in an international race, but she is determined to see Great Britain adopt a tire age policy sooner rather than later. Molloy’s 18-year-old son Michael perished in September 2012 along with another 23-year-old passenger and the driver in a bus crash caused by the catastrophic failure of a 19-and-a-half-year-old tire. The tire had been purchased secondhand by Merseypride Travel, which owned the 52-seat coach. It had legal tread depth, but was older than Michael.

“The risk to life from old tires -- no one can put a price on that. It’s been complete devastation,” says Molloy of the impact on her family. Michael, a promising musician, was on his way home after attending a musical festival in the Isle of Wight. “He was only 18 -- there was no other reason for the crash in the inquest -- other than the tire.”

Molloy, forensic crash investigator David Price and Surrey Coroner Richard Travers are campaigning to change the laws in Great Britain to prevent another such crash. In July, Travers formally announced that he would be writing a rule-43 report to alert the Secretary of State for Transport to the threat aged tires pose to public health. Travers’ report gives the Secretary a matched set. Three years ago, the Gloucestershire coroner did the same, after the 2009 death of Nazma Shaheen, whose crash was tied to the failure of a 13-year-old tire.

On November 20, Molloy and Price met with Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin, who reports directly to the Prime Minister. He assured her a response in two weeks.

Safety Research & Strategies Sues U.S. DOT in (Another) FOIA Dispute

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm, today filed its fourth Freedom of Information lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging that it has improperly held documents regarding Early Warning Reports.

The lawsuit emanates from two instances in which manufacturers allegedly did not report serious injury claims against them to NHTSA, as required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act’s Early Warning Reports (EWR) provision. One crash occurred in April 2009, involving a tire tread separation which resulted in an occupant sustaining a serious closed head injury. The second crash occurred in June 2010, involving the apparent failure of Harmony Lite Rider child restraint, which caused severe injuries to two young children.

“EWR data is supposed to alert the agency investigators to defect trends,” says SRS President Sean E. Kane. “But if manufacturers don’t report complete and accurate information, the system doesn’t work.”

Harmony, which manufactured the child safety seat and Nankang, the Taiwanese tire manufacturer, and Tireco, the tire importer, were notified of these claims via civil lawsuits in August 2010 and November 2011, respectively. Neither, however, showed up in a search of the manufacturer’s quarterly reports to NHTSA.

In March, SRS informed the director of the Office of Defects Investigation Frank Borris, and NHTSA’s Senior Associate Administrator for Safety, Daniel C. Smith, of these apparent omissions. The memo requested confirmation that these claims should have been submitted to the agency via a quarterly EWR submission, and “what actions the agency plans to take.” After receiving no reply, SRS submitted, in May, a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking any documentation that NHTSA followed up with Harmony, Nankang or Tireco, as well, as the agency’s policies and procedures around EWR, and a manufacturer’s failure to submit a reportable incident.  

Time to Call BS: Why Safety Groups Sued DOT Over Backover Rule Delay

Last week, a consortium of safety groups and advocates decided it had had enough of the delay tactics in publishing a final rule establishing a rear visibility standard and sued the Department of Transportation.

“We are going through the motions of trying to put pressure on the system to cough out the rule,” says attorney Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We’ve got a new Secretary of Transportation, and to help him along we figured we’d get the court involved.”

The petitioners before the U.S. Court Of Appeals’ Second Circuit in New York includes three organizations – KidsAndCars, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Consumers Union – and two New York residents who have backed over their children – Sue Auriemma of Manhasset and pediatrician Greg Gulbransen of Syosset. The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was named for two-year old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed when his father accidentally backed over him in the family’s driveway. It required the agency to issue a Final Rule amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 111, the rearview mirror standard, to, for the first time, define what a driver sees in the rear when backing up to detect pedestrians immediately behind his or her vehicle. The law forced the agency to address a significant design flaw – especially in SUVs – of expanded blind zones caused by the vehicle’s height and bulk. Dramatic pictures from KidsAndCars shows as many as 62 children arrayed directly behind an SUV that would be unseen by driver checking the rearview mirrors.

[flashvideo file=video/KAC_62Children30.flv image="video/KAC_62Children30_Preview.jpg" /]

The original statutory deadline was February 28, 2011, but the Final Rule has been delayed four times, and now is on track to be completed four years after the deadline. In one of his last acts, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent another letter to Congress delaying the issuance of a Final Rule until January 2015. (The new Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Anthony Foxx, started in July.)

Jeep Fire Advocacy Heats up While Investigation Stalls

How much is your conscience worth? Jenelle Embrey figures it at about $2,000 a month. That is roughly her monthly out-of-pocket cost for three billboards in the Frederick County, Virginia area, depicting a Jeep Grand Cherokee engulfed by flames and the plea: “Help Save Innocent Families Change.org/Dangerous Jeeps."

The Linden, Virginia woman, who works as a medical transcriptionist and a bookkeeper, is hoping that the graphic depictions will drive motorists to sign her online petition at change.org demanding that Chrysler recall the 1993 -2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees to correct a design that sites the plastic gas tank behind the rear axle, where it is vulnerable to fuel fires in rear-impact crashes. As of this morning, she had collected nearly 3,355 signatures.

 “I worked five years at my part time job, and I was at the point where I thought:  ‘It’s time to let go of the second job.’ Then the accident happened, and I said: ‘I’m going to hold on to it to fund my Jeep campaign,’” Embrey says. “It’s insane that they are still on the road. [Chrysler] knows they are faulty.”

The Jeep Grand Cherokees have been under the scrutiny of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since November 2009, when the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the agency to open an investigation into fuel-fed fires in Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 1992-2008 model years. The advocacy group charged that the plastic fuel tank's placement behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, and the lack of adequate shielding – similar in design to the infamous Ford Pinto – made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, this design resulted in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities, CAS said. The agency granted the CAS petition in August 2010, and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis; it remains open.

Today, the Center for Auto Safety sent another letter to Chrysler Chairman Sergio Marchionne and John Elkann, Chairman of parent company, Fiat Spa, calling on the company to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys. The letter was an emotional appeal, featuring the photos of toddlers and small children, who are among the occupants who have died in rear impact fire-involved crashes.  CAS cited 349 fatal fire crashes of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys that have resulted in 478 deaths, at least 157 of which are deaths due to fire.

Senate Takes Up Recalled Rental Bill

The Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee will hold hearings tomorrow on a bill that would prohibit car rental companies from renting vehicles that are under a safety recall until they are remedied.

Called the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2013, the bill is a bi-partisan affair, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and supported by the car rental companies.

The namesakes of the bill, Raechel Houck, 24, and her 20 year-old sister, Jacqueline Houck, died in an Enterprise Rent-A-Car 2004 PT Cruiser on October 7, 2004 in a fiery collision while northbound on Highway 101 in Monterey County. The driver, Raechel Houck, lost control of the vehicle, crossing the median and crashing into an 18-wheeled Freightliner tractor trailer. The driver of the truck testified that he could see smoke pouring from the PT Cruiser’s engine compartment just before it veered into the southbound lanes.

Chrysler had recalled 439,000 2001-2004 PT Cruiser and the 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible a month earlier. The September 9, 2004 recall noted that the power steering hose could rub against the transaxle differential cover, eventually resulting in a steering fluid leak and an underhood fire. By the time of the Houck crash, Chrysler had reported a total of 126 PT Cruiser fires, beginning in 2000. Despite the recall notice, Enterprise had rented the PT Cruiser that crashed to three other customers before the Houcks. On the day of the crash, the PT Cruiser was the only vehicle available and Enterprise employees offered it to the Houck sisters as a free upgrade.

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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