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. 

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.   

Toyota: The Other Numbers

This morning National Public Radio reported Toyota sold 5 million vehicles in the last six months.  These strong sales numbers mean the company may be poised to regain the number one automaker slot from GM.  This talk of Toyota numbers had us here at Safety Research & Strategies looking at some other data -- complaints involving Toyota unintended acceleration and what’s been reported publicly in the last year.

And we would be remiss if we failed to note Toyota’s latest directive to the press about how to properly address Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane.  But first, the numbers:  We reviewed unintended acceleration incidents involving Toyota vehicles reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between June 1, 2011 and July 17, 2012.  To identify these reports, we examined the NHTSA data for all consumer complaints containing keywords related to UA that were submitted during that time period. We then reviewed each complaint record to determine if it described a UA incident. So here they are:

- 368 total incidents

- 36 involved vehicles described as having had at least one UA recall remedy performed prior to the incident.

-  95 reported injuries; none of these incidents resulted in a fatality.

So what do we make of this?  Despite the Very Important Scientists and the Secretary of Transportation LaHood’s proclamation that “The verdict is in” and “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period,” consumers are still taking the time to report their experience to the government – and many report incidents that don’t seem to be explained by floor mats, “sticky” pedals, or driver error.  You can read them here.

Safety Research & Strategies Takes DOT and NHTSA Transparency Battle to Court; Sues for Toyota Investigation Documents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts safety research firm that advocates for consumers on safety matters, sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today over the release of Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigation documents.

The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 11-2165), alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

“One of President Obama’s first acts was to issue an Executive Order on transparency and open government, pledging a commitment to creating ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government,’” says SRS founder and President Sean E. Kane. “The DOT and NHTSA have pledged transparency but have consistently kept vital information from the public.  The agency’s numerous investigations into Toyota Unintended Acceleration have been characterized by continued secrecy, preventing a full accounting of their activities and the complete replication of their analyses by independent parties.  This lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of documents that are relevant to a significant safety recall.”

Tire Known Unknowns: Decoding the Date

Human Factors researchers at the State University of North Carolina have recently concluded that consumers can’t read the date of manufacture obscured by the week and month configuration dictated by the Tire Identification Number (aka the DOT number).

Researchers Jesseca Taylor and Michael Wogalter asked 83 test subjects to translate tire markings as represented by different date configurations, ranging from the conventional month/day/year (12/05/07) to the DOT code’s four-digit week-year (2205). Effect of Text Format on Determining Tires’ Date of Manufacture, accepted by Annual Proceedings of 55th Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, found that when consumers chose to translate the different four-digit representations into a month and year, they consistently failed to understand that the first two digits represented the week of manufacture.

The DOT number, an alpha-numeric code found on the tire sidewall, has consistently confused consumers and tire professionals. The last four characters of the 11-character code contain the week and year the tire was made. For example, 0302 signifies that the tire was made during the third week of 2002. (Tires made prior to 2000 used a three-digit date configuration at the end of the DOT code.  In those cases, 039 signifies that the tire was manufactured during the third week of 1999 – or the 1989.)  No participant in Taylor and Wogalter’s study correctly identified examples such as 03/01 or 1102. They confused the first two digits with the month itself, for example, identifying “03” as March, instead of realizing that the third week of the year falls in January.

Taking the Burn Out of Seat Heaters

Back in February, SRS wrote to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and National Mobility Equipment Dealers about the problem of car seat heaters and drivers with lower body sensory deficits, such as paraplegics and diabetics (See It's Time to Make Seat Heaters Safer). Many consumer heating devices that make direct contact with the body, such as electric blankets, are designed with maximum temperature limits, but not so in the auto industry. In the absence of any regulation or industry standard, vehicle manufacturers have implemented a variety of designs, some of which lack an automatic cut-off and reach maximum temperatures that can produce third-degree burns or both.

For occupants who have limited or no sensations below the waist, these designs are dangerous. The medical literature has been documenting severe burns suffered by disabled drivers and passengers from car seat heaters since 2003, and nationally recognized burn care specialists joined our effort to engage adapters, regulators and manufacturers in averting these preventable injuries.

CPSC Puts Information in Hands of Consumers

After taking comments from the public, and by that we mean, the remarks of a handful of advocates and consumers and the complaints of 33 trade organization reps and business owners, the U.S. Product Safety Commission is now preparing to vote on a Final Rule to establish a consumer complaint database.

The database represents a sea-change in the accessibility of consumer product information, wresting control from manufacturers, who held sway over the flow of public information for nearly three decades.

SRS President Sean Kane, who testified before the CPSC at a public hearing on the database, urged the agency to build a public database by fusing sufficient detail on the product and problem and public availability of the data in a timely fashion.

The Corrections

Apparently, when Toyota isn’t conducting secret polls to destroy our reputation, it’s reading our blogs. (We blush.) Yesterday, we got an e-mail from Mr. Mike Michels himself! Michels, Toyota’s Vice President of Communications, asked us to correct a paragraph in our post entitled “Toyota’s Quiet Buybacks Speak Up.”

We quoted an allegation from the Multi-District Litigation, which purported to show that Mike Robinson, Toyota’s Technical Supervisor of the Quality Assurance Powertrain Group, Toyota/Lexus Product Quality & Service Support, was an Avalon owner who had experienced an SUA incident. This is what we reported:

SRS Releases Update Report: Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Eight months have passed since Congress called out NHTSA and Toyota for failing to address Sudden Unintended Acceleration. The agency and the automaker claim they've learned nothing new about the problem, but there's nothing wrong with our learning curve. Behind the barrage of PR are all those niggling little facts, and once again, SRS has assembled them into the go-to Toyota SUA reference guide.

15 Passenger Vans: Still Dangerous After All These Years

Saturday’s 15-passenger van crash that killed six and injured eight members of a Bronx church is a somber reminder that the vehicle remains the only one in the U.S. fleet today that is deadly if used as a 15-passenger van. NHTSA long-ago whiffed on recalling the unstable vehicles, instead relying on manufacturers’ good intentions and consumer warnings, and the preventable carnage continues.

The 1997 Ford Econoline van, loaded with 14 members of the Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies and their luggage, was on its way to a church event in Schenectady, NY when the left rear tire failed on the New York Thruway. The van rolled over, scattering occupants and suitcases on the median.

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