August 1, 2004
NOTE: The following article was published in Auto Monitor, an automotive trade journal that covers India’s rapidly growing automotive industry. The article was written in response to controversy that arose when Hyundai advertised that it’s Indian market vehicles contained the same safety features as its U.S. models, while competitors models did not. The U.S. market has experienced similar safety discrepancies which are discussed in the article
Hyundai’s recent media campaign highlighting the different safety specifications its competitors offer for the Indian market compared to international versions brings to the surface a well-known issue to those who monitor vehicle safety and its regulation in the US.
The US has suffered through many years of vehicle safety deficiencies while other nations’ consumers purchased similar models with safety features unavailable to Americans.
One of the most egregious examples of safety equipment deficiencies that occurred in the US, and lasted for two decades, was the absence of rear seat lap/shoulder belts. The European and Australian market models adopted these basic, inexpensive, and arguably the single-most effective safety feature in motor vehicles as far back as the early 1970s.
How could this happen? In a word: politics. Manufacturers pointed to the added cost of fitting these safety features into the rear, low belt usage rates at the time, and a low cost/benefit in order to sway rulemaking.
Federal regulators decided to move forward with landmark safety regulations in 1968 but allowed manufacturers to simply install upper anchorages that would facilitate a retrofit of a shoulder portion. As the years past, retrofits were never widely available and the regulation was not revisited until the early 1980s when the government was asked and turned down requests to require safer lap/shoulder belts for rear seat occupants.
Serious injuries data
By this time, the safety community had decades of data documenting serious injuries caused by lap-only belts and the improved safety offered by lap/shoulder designs. However, safety regulators turned away the opportunity, as “deregulation” was the Washington mantra during this era.
Meanwhile the major US market players were fitting lap/shoulder belts in the rear of their European and Australian models only to delete them for US consumers. The issue reached a boiling point in 1986 when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent government agency established to counterbalance the politics that infused other safety agencies in the US, issued a report documenting the serious injuries and fatalities associated with lap-only belts in crashes.
Congress took notice and held hearings in which government officials and the industry were grilled and subsequently lambasted for their failure to act. One US senator rather succinctly stated, “We don’t need regulatory agencies if they are going to leave safety up to voluntary action.”
Other questions were raised about the value of American lives versus the lives of overseas consumers. Within months Congress passed a bill requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) begin rulemaking to require rear seat lap/shoulder belts. Despite the mandate, it took NHTSA several years to complete a final rule that became effective in 1989 for passenger cars and 1991 in light trucks.
Other important safety features have been conspicuously missing from US market models while their European and Australian counterparts proudly advertised them.
Learning the hard way
For example, seat belt pretensioners designed to reduce seat belt slack and enhance belt performance, seat belt buckles that were much more resistant to inadvertent unlatching, fuel system shut-offs designed to prevent fires, etc.
In 2000 Americans learned that Ford used more robust tires for Australian and European Explorers. The result: more than 270 dead and more than 600 serious injuries in the US.
Other safety systems like electronic stability control have been widely available in Europe while US consumers have faced record numbers of injuries and deaths from rollover crashes and find the feature primarily as an option on luxury vehicles. It takes market pressure and political will to make a difference. Kudos to Hyundai for creating the market pressure.