With Rosekind Gone, NHTSA Retreats

In November 2016, trade publication Automotive News published a rosy headline on the eve of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind’s departure: NHTSA positioned to continue Rosekind's work after inauguration.

The article went on to repeat Rosekind’s predictions that the agency’s aggressive enforcement stance would continue because “the agency has taken steps to keep its momentum on issues such as autonomous vehicles and cementing a “proactive” safety culture in the new presidential administration.”

[Transportation] Secretary Foxx supported us by allowing us to take an associate administrator and make her the acting deputy administrator. So, when we leave, instead of two-thirds of the leadership leaving, two-thirds will stay,” Rosekind said. “That’s another way we’ll have senior career people making sure that things go on.”

An examination of NHTSA rulemaking, investigations, and civil penalties in the last two years shows that the momentum has died; the agency appears to be doing less than ever before. It’s so pronounced that even Rosekind could see it from his new perch on the industry side, as chief safety innovation officer by Zoox, a driverless car startup. There could be a variety of reasons for this, so we’ll keep the speculation to a minimum, but the trendlines point to a decline in agency enforcement and rulemaking activities. 

Civil Penalties

One of Rosekind’s signature enforcement moves was the use of civil settlements and Special Orders to focus automakers’ attention on timely reporting and ramp up enthusiasm for offering recall remedies. From 2014 to 2015, the agency levied more than $530 million against major automakers, such as Honda, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai-Kia, BMW and GM, for failure to submit Early Warning Reports, failure to make timely defect reports to the agency, and failure to remedy recalled vehicles and components. These were big fines levied against big players—indeed, the entire industry earned a nuclear response for decades of treating the regulator with open disdain. By the end of 2016, the Golden Age of Enforcement was over. From imposing 10 civil penalties in 2015, totaling more than $404 million, NHTSA fined four entities in 2016 – three of which were auto dealers who sold unremedied, recalled vehicles. 

That year, Ride the Ducks International, then-owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, earned the largest fine – $1 million for a slew of violations stemming from a September 2015 crash, in which a stretch duck boat vehicle crashed with a motor coach in Seattle, killing five and injuring 69 others. The vehicle had an unrepaired axle defect covered by a Technical Service Bulletin. The immediate civil penalty was $500,000, with a second $500,000 payment held in abeyance unless the company committed new violation. A couple of years later, a Ride the Ducks boat sank in Table Rock Lake, in the Missouri Ozarks, and killed 17. The victims’ families have sued the new owner, Ripley Entertainment Inc. Did NHTSA investigate to determine if it was time to collect the other $500,000?

In 2017, the civil penalty tally dropped to $130,000, with fines against Michelin Tires, and C&M Trailers of Ennis, Texas. The latter was penalized $110,000 for basically flouting the regulations in any way that it could: skipping EWR reports, manufacturing and certifying vehicles that did not comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards, failing to submit identifying information, failing to comply with VIN requirements, failing to maintain information on first retail purchasers, failing to maintain records of tire purchasers, and launching untimely recalls.  This penalty covered four recalls for jet ski, boat and utility trailers.

In 2018, NHTSA only fined Champion Ford, of Edinboro, Indiana $20,000 for selling unremedied recalled vehicles.

One theory is that Rosekind’s shock and awe campaign permanently cowed the industry into following all the rules, promptly reporting defects and submitting all EWR claims, so no need for the further dispensation of civil penalties. Civil settlements going back to 1999 show that for most of the years prior to 2014, the agency was regularly nabbing auto dealers or small manufacturers and zapping at least one or two major automakers each year. Enforcement seems more closely correlated to the party in power, with Republicans rarely finding many violations worth pursuing, and Democrats exercising the regulator’s authority. For example, during the Bush Administration, in 2007, no fines were imposed or collected. With a Republican president at the helm, NHTSA enforcement has apparently re-entered a hibernation phase.


The number of investigations the agency has opened in the last two years has similarly dropped like a stone. In 1988, the agency opened as many 186 Defect Petitions, Equipment, Recall and Audit Queries, Preliminary Evaluations and Engineering Analyses. As our regular readers know, an EA is not a new, separate investigation; it represents an upgrade of an existing investigation – most typically a PE. In the time period examined, there are about four times more PEs than EAs, because either the manufacturer is persuaded to conduct a recall, or the agency decides it doesn’t have enough to pursue the matter further. The figures below represent any investigation opened in a particular calendar year.

In 2008, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations decreased to 123, and in 2018, the number is down to 34. In the first three months of 2019, the agency has opened a grand total of one investigation. 

Year Number of Investigations
2008 123
2009 94
2010 78
2011 63
2012 66
2013 56
2014 68
2015 65
2016 28
2017 33
2018 34
2019 1

We suspect this could be due to NHTSA turning to a more informal screening process that doesn’t rise to the PE level. These pre-investigation investigations don’t make it into the public record. The Safety Record has long noted NHTSA’s aversion to transparency. 


In 2016, a record 53 million vehicles were recalled – mostly due to the expansion of the Takata airbag recall for over-pressurized bags that could deploy inadvertently, spewing metal shards into occupants. According to the agency’s latest annual recall report, in 2017, there were 822 recalls involving 30.7 million vehicles, just above 2013 levels. In 2018, there were a total of 722 recalls affecting over 29 million vehicles in the United States. The number of NHTSA-influenced recalls specifically for vehicle defects has dropped more dramatically. In 2008, there were 191 NHTSA-influenced recalls, and over the last nine years, that number has fluctuated, but declined, with just 41 NHTSA-influenced recalls for vehicle defects in 2017. That was the lowest number in two decades.   

But, perhaps the quantity of vehicles recalled is less important than the quality of NHTSA’s oversight. In July 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released NHTSA’s Management of Light Passenger Vehicle Recalls Lacks Adequate Processes and Oversight, an audit mandated by the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, in the wake of the Takata recalls. This report concluded:

NHTSA’s process for monitoring for light passenger vehicle recalls lacks documentation and management controls, and does not ensure that remedies are reported completely and in a timely manner. The Agency also does not verify recall completion rates, although it has the authority to do so, and it lacks sufficient management controls to ensure staff assess risk when deciding whether to use oversight tools to improve recall completion rates. Finally, while NHTSA expanded its oversight of the Takata recalls in 2015, by increasing the reporting requirements for manufacturers, it did not follow its own procedures to address low recall completion rates for earlier Takata recalls. Overall, inadequate controls and processes for verifying and collecting manufacturer-reported information have hindered NHTSA’s ability to oversee safety recall implementation.

A chart entitled Monitoring of Recall Scope Reporting was fairly damning – showing that despite significant percentages of initial Part 573 Notices of Defect and Noncompliance with mandated information missing, the Recall Management Division noticed these gaps zero percent of the time – or the sample was too small to say. For example, the RMD did not notice that 46 percent of defect notices contained no description of the manufacturer's basis for its determination of the recall population.

In 2011, GAO auditors also found NHTSA’s recall oversight wanting. This report called out the agency for having no set procedures to determine the adequacy of a recall, being slow to analyze recall data to determine if defects are being repaired, and failing to analyze its data to identify recall completion trend data. Since there are no set targets for recall completion rates, there was little incentive for manufacturers to try to remedy defects for most of the population still in the fleet and in a timely manner. In the short term, NHTSA did not track repair rates to ensure recall effectiveness, the report noted. And, while manufacturers file quarterly reports showing the number of vehicles remedied, and NHTSA occasionally opens Recall Queries (RQ) – investigations to assess recall effectiveness – there was evidence that NHTSA did not appear to employ a systematic process to quickly catch low repair rates. 


Save the agency’s early years, NHTSA has never been a torrent of rulemaking. NHTSA largely likes to wait until Congress mandates a new rule, or the entire industry complies, allowing the codification of a widespread practice. But over the last four years, NHTSA’s number of proposed and final rules has wound down to little.

From 2014 through 2016, the agency moved forward with a number of significant regulatory initiatives, mostly buoyed by 10 Congressionally mandated rulemakings on issues ranging from motorcoach safety to side impact tests for children’s car seats. In those years it published:  

  • An NPRM to improve the rollover structural integrity of certain types of large buses to ensure sufficient survival space for restrained occupants, that seats and overhead luggage racks remain secured and window glazing remained attached to its mounting during and after a rollover crash and that emergency exits remain closed during the rollover crash and operable after the crash.
  • An NPRM to amend the tire identification number to expand the two-symbol codes to identify new tire plants to three, and to standardize the length of the tire identification number to 13 alphanumeric characters for new tires and seven characters for retreaded tires, making it easier to identify a TIN from which a character is missing.
  • An NPRM to adopt side-impact performance requirements for FMVSS No. 213, ‘‘Child restraint systems,’’ to adopt side impact performance requirements for all child restraint systems (CRSs) designed to seat children in a weight range that includes weights up to 40 lbs.
  • An NPRM to upgrade the rear underride protection FMVSSs in crashes into trailers and semitrailers. NHTSA is proposing to adopt requirements of Transport Canada's standard for underride guards, which require rear impact guards to provide sufficient strength and energy absorption to protect occupants of compact and subcompact passenger cars impacting the rear of trailers at 56 kilometers per hour (km/h) (35 miles per hour (mph)). 
  • An NPRM to amend its motorcycle helmet standard, FMVSS No. 218, to add a definition of “motorcycle helmet,” and to modify the existing performance requirements of the standard by adding a set of dimensional and compression requirements. 
  • An NPRM to amend FMVSS No. 225, Child restraint anchorage systems, to improve the ease of use of the lower anchorages of child restraint anchorage systems and the ease of use of tether anchorages.
  • An ANPRM and an NPRM to amend the means of recall notification to owners and purchasers required under the Safety Act to be in an electronic manner, in addition to first class mail.
  • An NPRM to establish a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 217a, “Anti-ejection glazing for bus portals,” to drive the installation of advanced glazing in high-occupancy buses (generally, over-the-road buses (of any weight) and non-over-the-road buses with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 11,793 kilograms (26,000 pounds)). 
  • A Final Rule on the rear visibility standard 
  • A Final Rule establishing a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 136 to require electronic stability control (ESC) systems on truck tractors and certain buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of greater than 11,793 kilograms (26,000 pounds). 
  • A Final Rule establishing a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) to set minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles. 

In 2017, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to establish a new standard, FMVSS 150, to mandate the standardization of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications for new light vehicles. In 2018, NHTSA’s most significant rulemaking was to withdraw a 2010 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to test the impact of brake fluids on the type of rubber the industry now uses. The agency kicked off 2019 by withdrawing two 2012 NPRMs – one that mandates installation of an Event Data Recorder (EDR) that meets NHTSA's current EDR standard in most light vehicles and a second that revises FMVSS 205, Glazing materials, to harmonize it with the corresponding Global Technical Regulation used internationally.

NHTSA’s failure to execute rulemaking has earned it two lawsuits in the last three years. In November 2016, Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety and former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, sued the agency for failing to respond to their petition to establish an automatic braking regulation. The group had petitioned the agency in January to require the feature. And then in March, without responding to the petition in the required 120 day-period, NHTSA announced it had reached an historic agreement with 22 automakers to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard by 2022.

In August 2017, the Center for Auto Safety and KidsAndCars.org sued the DOT for missing a deadline to require automakers to install rear-seat warning technology in all future vehicles. The plaintiffs have argued that the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012, required NHTSA to issue a final rule by October 2015 mandating the rear-seat reminder system. The agency has argued that the Department initiated a rulemaking in 2013, when it asked for public comments on a proposed study on the effectiveness of existing rear seat belt reminder systems. That study began in 2014. The agency further argued that MAP-21 specifically authorized the DOT to extend the initial three-year deadline for issuing a final rule, and the agency has repeatedly announced these extensions. Currently NHTSA estimates it will publish an NPRM in May.

The DOT has often been a Cabinet-level backwater, and NHTSA the ugly step-child of the federal family – even though it regulates a consumer commodity found in virtually every American home. The Trump Administration, in concert with a Republican majority in both houses from 2016 to 2018, generally disdained governance unless it was focused on re-distributing wealth to the top, taking healthcare away from the public, or suppressing brown people. So, we didn’t expect too much from NHTSA during these years. But we’ve never seen NHTSA minimize itself so thoroughly. And the contrast with the activity under Rosekind’s two-year reign is stark.

New Analysis Challenges Bold Tesla Claims

On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown, a Tesla enthusiast, died, when his 2015 Model S in Autopilot mode, collided with a tractor trailer crossing a highway near Williston, Florida. A month later, the agency opened an investigation to throw open the hood of Tesla’s technology and probe its Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) system design and performance, the human-machine interface issues, modifications Tesla had made to its Autopilot and AEB systems and Tesla crash data.

Six months later, the Office of Defects Investigation closed the Preliminary Evaluation saying they could find nothing wrong – in fact, the agency’s examination of the crash data showed that Tesla’s Autopilot system, beefed up with Autosteer, was a god-damned miracle! By the agency’s calculations, airbag deployments in Tesla vehicles with Autosteer dropped by 40 percent after the installation of the technology – either as original equipment or through an over-the-air software update.

But, a new analysis of the original data by Randy Whitfield, of Quality Control Systems (QCS) Corp., actually shows the opposite. For the subset of vehicles (those that had mileage before and after the installation of Autosteer) in which all of the relevant data are known – the exact mileage at the installation of the technology, Whitfield found that the airbag deployment crash rate increased by 59 percent after Autosteer technology was added. (NHTSA’s Implausible Safety Claim for Tesla’s Autosteer Driver Assistance System)

He concluded: “Our replication of NHTSA’s analysis of the underlying data shows that the Agency’s conclusion is not well-founded.”

Ahem. That understatement doesn’t begin to capture all of the ridiculous, but troubling elements of this story. Sean Kane, president and founder of Safety Research & Strategies, and a frequent collaborator with Whitfield, says the agency’s bad math coupled with its resistance to transparency bodes ill for public safety and push for unregulated autonomous vehicles.

“NHTSA has shown its unwillingness to regulate the safety of the electronics that control modern vehicles and to properly assess potential safety defects in increasingly complex vehicles. This once-storied public health agency, built on epidemiological principles, now resorts to hiding data and promoting the business interests of companies they were entrusted with regulating as it promotes autonomous vehicles and surrenders its oversight role in favor of industry ‘guidance.’” Kane says.

NHSTA Exponent-izes the Tesla Data

In the report NHTSA submitted along with the Closing Resume of its 2016 Tesla investigation, the agency claimed that Tesla’s addition of Autosteer had a significant and measurable effect on safety:  

ODI analyzed mileage and airbag deployment data supplied by Tesla for all MY 2014 through 2016 Model S and 2016 Model X vehicles equipped with the Autopilot Technology Package, either installed in the vehicle when sold or through an OTA update, to calculate crash rates by miles travelled prior to [fn. 21] and after Autopilot installation. [fn. 22] Figure 11 shows the rates calculated by ODI for airbag deployment crashes in the subject Tesla vehicles before and after Autosteer installation. The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.

That NHTSA decided to feature airbag deployments as a determinant of the efficacy of autonomous technology was odd, because in its Information Request to Tesla, the agency never asked Tesla for airbag deployment numbers. Nonetheless, for the ensuing year and a half, Tesla dined out on this claim, trotting out the 40 percent reduced crash rates whenever another one of its vehicles crashed. By May 2018, the agency was forced by the journalistic clamor for the basis of this startling statistic, to walk it back. But only Whitfield persisted and succeeded in obtaining the underlying data to reveal how statistically weak the figure was.

Crash rates are born of numerators and denominators. In this case, the numerator was the number of airbag deployments. The denominator was comprised of vehicle miles travelled – which represented the vehicle’s exposure to the risk of a crash, and therefore a scenario in which the airbag might deploy. In order to pin down the denominator, NHTSA needed to know the vehicle mileage at the time Autosteer was installed, but for most of the vehicles in the study, Tesla didn’t provide the exact data.

Whitfield found that “the actual mileage at the time the Autosteer software was installed appears to have been reported for fewer than half the vehicles NHTSA studied.” Of the 43,781 vehicles studied, only 5,714 vehicles – or 13 percent – had complete mileage data and driving experience before and after installing Autosteer.

For the data missing the exact Autosteer installation mileage number, “NHTSA treated the exposure mileage that could not be classified as either before or after the installation of Autosteer as if it were zero mileage,” Whitfield says. “This results in an undercount of the denominators. The problem is the under-count affected the “before” category much more than it did the “after” category.” 

The Nearly Two-Year Battle for the Data

It took Whitfield, plus a lawyer, and 641 days to get the data.

Whitfield was suspicious of NHTSA findings, and the lack of back-up data from “one of the most incessantly self-professed data-driven government agencies” and sought to replicate its analysis. On February 24, 2017, QCS filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for “all of the mileage and airbag deployment data supplied by Tesla analyzed by ODI to calculate the crash rates shown in Figure 11…” He also asked for any “statistical formulas, models, adjustments, sample weights, and/or any other data or methods relied upon to calculate the crash rates.”

At the end of March, the agency promised to respond by mid-April. Three months later, when no response seemed forthcoming, Whitfield filed a FOIA lawsuit for the data in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.  On July 21, 2017, NHTSA notified Whitfield that it had denied his request, based on two exemptions to the FOIA – Exemption 4, which shields information that could cause competitive harm, and Exemption 5 – which shields an agency’s “deliberative process” from public view. NHTSA tends to hand these out like after-dinner mints. In the past, the agency has misused Exemption 5 to deem any piece of information – a photograph, a number – as a critical part of its deliberative process, and deny a FOIA request. (DOT Settles Lawsuit over Toyota UA Documents, New Congressional Inquiry Raises More Questions)  

On September 30, 2018, U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich denied motions by both QCS and DOT for a summary judgement (a favorable ruling). However, in her 13-page ruling ordering the parties to prepare for further proceedings, Judge Friedrich made it abundantly clear that she found both Tesla’s claims of competitive harm and NHTSA claims of deliberative process to be less than persuasive.

On the matter of the competitive harm, Judge Friedrich scratched her head over Tesla Director of Field Performance Engineering, Matthew L. Schwall’s lengthy December 20, 2017 declaration describing the various ways the data could reveal “proprietary secrets.” She methodically eviscerated Schwall’s five arguments – a shorter version might be: You wrote many, many words. None support your position.

Then, she swept aside NHTSA’s arguments that Office of Defect Investigation’s Jeffrey Quandt used some super-secret deliberative methods that could not be exposed to the light of day:

It thus appears that Quandt performed a straightforward mathematical calculation involving categories of data clearly identified in Figure 11. Based on Figure 11 and his declaration, it appears that Quandt simply divided the total number of airbag activations by the total number of miles driven to determine the average crash rate (per million miles) for select Tesla vehicle models (both before and after Autosteer installation).

Following this judicial beat-down, NHTSA told Tesla that it was rescinding its grant of Confidential Treatment for the data QCS requested and turned it over in late November. (The data provided to QCS by NHTSA is available here.)

The Moral of the Story

Last May, an American Automobile Association (AAA) released the results of its latest survey tracking consumer trust in automotive autonomous technology, and found that it has “quickly eroded. Today, three-quarters (73 percent) of American drivers report they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up significantly from 63 percent in late 2017. Additionally, two-thirds (63 percent) of U.S. adults report they would actually feel less safe sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle while walking or riding a bicycle.”

And stories like this aren’t going to move the numbers upward.

NHTSA owes its public health mission and the driving public its due care and transparency in guiding the transition. Instead, the agency has let the industry auto-steer us towards their next big business model, while cheering from the sidelines.

We can only hope the burns sustained from the exploding 40-percent claim will discourage NHTSA in the future from throwing out statistical spitballs, providing automakers with marketing copy and trying to hide from independent investigators.


Preventing Heavy Truck Rear-Impact Crashes: We Have the Technology. Why Don’t We Use It?

On a hot Friday afternoon in June, truck driver Perry McCleod, at the wheel of a 2004 Peterbilt tractor-trailer pulling a 2016 Hyundai box trailer, crashed into the back of a Toyota Tundra, stopped at a work-zone on Interstate 94 in Cass County, Missouri. A forensic examination of the crash showed that McCleod was doing nearly 70 miles an hour seven seconds before the crash. The impact created a four-vehicle chain collision. A witness at the scene told investigators from the Missouri State Police “the truck driver had to be distracted. He was not slowing down at all. I don’t believe he locked up his brakes. He just smashed that car. It was unbelievable.” Another said, “I was southbound behind the tractor trailer in the right lane. We were traveling at highway speeds. He slammed on his brakes and I slammed on mine. He hit something and I saw a vehicle go flying in the air.”

Karl Blaser, 44, the driver of the Tundra, died at the scene from his injuries. Yesterday, the Blaser family filed a civil lawsuit in Missouri’s Circuit Court of Cass County against McCleod and Landstar, which leased his truck and operates a long-haul transportation company, alleging negligence.

In 2016, there were 475,000 police-reported crashes involving large trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) annual Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts. Many human factors contributed to the total, among them: a lack of rigorous truck driver training, and trucker’s low pay, long hours and high turnover rate. Distraction is another major factor. According to the FMCSA, from 2013-2015, 702 or about 6 percent of the total 11,570 drivers of large trucks and buses involved in fatal crashes, were distracted or impaired at the wheel. In most cases, the cause of the distraction was unknown. But for at least two decades, how to prevent them has been well known. Engineering strategies – including low-tech audible warnings and more complex crash avoidance systems – prevent such crashes. Nonetheless, they remain a mere option for fleets and independent operators, even as the sources for distraction multiply and employment conditions in the trucking industry set the conditions for tired, inexperienced and ill-trained drivers to make fatal errors. Both the federal government and industry have favorably assessed these countermeasures, but the former has done nothing to require them and the latter has not pushed for their implementation fleet-wide.  

“It’s long past time for the trucking industry to consistently use safety technologies,” says attorney Chad Lucas of the Kansas City firm of Kuhlman & Lucas, who represents the Blaser family. “Trucking companies and commercial carriers have known for decades the enormous value collision avoidance technologies add to their fleets by reducing the incidence and severity of rear impact crashes.” 

Forward Collision Warning Systems are Not New

Collision avoidance systems (CAS), can include a host of features, ranging from ABS brakes (standard), to electronic stability control (required for some heavy truck classes), and lane departure warning systems. Another system used by the commercial trucking industry is the Forward Collision Warning (FCW) system, which provides drivers with alerts in advance of a potential crash and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), which electronically applies the vehicle’s brakes without driver input in response to a potential crash. These technologies – which are also retrofit-able – can be used by themselves, but most vehicles equipped with automatic braking include a warning system. FCW systems rely on radar, LIDAR, and cameras to detect an imminent crash and alert the driver; AEB systems brake when an imminent collision is detected. Some systems also incorporate Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) to maintain a specified distance between it and the vehicle in front of it, so if the lead vehicle slows or comes to a stop, ACC systems will force the vehicle to follow suit, engaging the brakes, or otherwise decreasing engine RPMs by cutting off the fuel.

Government agencies have been taking note of the relationship between driver inattention and rear-impact crashes for more than two decades – around the same time that automotive technology companies began equipping their heavy trucks with them. In 1993, a NHTSA study on Intelligent Vehicle Highway System technology to prevent or reduce the severity of rear-end crashes found that driver inattention was the primary cause, estimated at 66.3 percent of events. In 1995, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Special Investigation likewise noted that the data showed that rear-end collisions were common and most often the result of driver inattentiveness or following too closely, and that they most often occur when the leading vehicle is stopped. The NTSB further noted that combination unit truck tractor vehicles were three times as likely to be involved in a rear-end collision during their operational lifetime than a passenger vehicle, and that when such a truck is the striking vehicle, the crash is “12 times more likely to result in a fatal injury than a rear-end accident that involves only passenger vehicles.”

One of the first companies to commercialize collision avoidance technology was Radar Control Systems, which became VORAD (vehicle on-board radar) Safety Systems in 1991. In 1992, then-Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner was sufficiently intrigued to participate in a public demonstration of a Lincoln Town Car, equipped with VORAD’s radar-based detection and an automatic braking application, stopping the car from hitting the back of a target vehicle. The press was good enough to entice Greyhound Lines Inc. to sign up with VORAD to retrofit its 2,400-bus fleet with VORAD's collision-warning radar. According to an Inc. Magazine article about VORAD, Greyhound predicted that the system would reduce accidents by 25 to 40 percent and pay for itself within a year. In 1994, Eaton Truck Systems joined forces with VORAD, purchasing a stake in the company. In 1998, VORAD added Adaptive Cruise Control to its radar system. In 2004, the partnership, now Eaton VORAD, entered into an agreement with component giant TRW to manufacture radar sensors.

Other manufacturers of forward collision warning systems are Bendix, with its Wingman collision mitigation system; Mobileye; and Meritor Wabco, which began marketing and selling its OnGuard collision mitigation systems – radar-based adaptive cruise control system with active braking – as early as 2007, according to their website. Meritor Wabco describes OnGuard as “a new technology designed to further improve commercial vehicle safety.” These systems are offered factory-installed or as aftermarket units for retrofits.

Trucking companies such as Landstar Systems’ subsidiary Landstar Poole, were initially eager first-adopters. In 1995, it purchased 400 Eaton VORAD Collision Warning Systems, and made another 100 units available for purchase by small fleet operators who contracted with Landstar.  A 1996 Federal Highway Administration report on the benefits of Intelligent Transportation System highlighted Landstar successes:

Landstar Systems is installing the Eaton-Vorad system on 40% of its owned fleet and giving the contract fleet incentive to equip. Positive evaluation of the device by experienced drivers in a pilot test and the potential to decrease self insurance losses lead to the decision to equip. While Landstar does not have reliable statistics, no equipped power units have been involved in a rear-end collision since the installation began in January of 1995.

In August 1998, Landstar Systems sold Poole to Schneider National and became an owner-operator business – meaning the fleet was owned by individual truckers who leased their vehicles back to Landstar, which handled the hauling operation. That year, Landstar was subsidizing the purchase of collision warning technology for their owner-operators. If the newly arranged company continued to help equip the fleet with FCW systems, it stopped bragging about it. 

“Landstar was once a leader in ensuring that its fleet was equipped with life-saving collision avoidance technology. What happened?” Lucas asked. “It’s inexcusable that it’s done nothing over the last 20 years to require the operators in its fleet to implement this safety technology.”

Other companies, such as UPS, have made collision warning systems standard in their heavy truck fleet.

Where’s the Research?

There isn’t a plethora of published quantitative efficacy data, but we know this: suppliers offer them, so there is a market, and truck chassis manufacturers install them as an OEM feature, and trucking companies buy them as after-market modifications, so there is some indication of a need and an acknowledgement that they prevent crashes. The federal government – particularly NHTSA – has been issuing reports on heavy truck braking performance, forward collision warning systems, and electronic stability control (ESC) since 2004. In 2015-2016, the agency published test track research reports in support of objective test procedures to evaluate the safety applications of V2V-equipped commercial vehicles.

In 2015, the NTSB published “The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes,” which examined the board’s investigations of nine rear-end heavy truck crashes within the previous three years that resulted in 28 fatalities and 90 injured people. The report also noted that in 2012, rear-end crashes resulted in 1,705 fatalities and represented almost half of all two-vehicle crashes. The NTSB’s special investigation reached 10 conclusions, among them: the slow development of performance standards and the lack of regulatory action have delayed deployment of collision avoidance technologies; and when paired with active braking and ESC, collision warning systems could significantly reduce the frequency and severity of rear-end crashes. The NTSB criticized NHTSA for failing to include high-speed crashes in existing testing scenarios and protocols in the assessment of forward collision avoidance systems in passenger vehicles.  The board recommended that the agency develop performance standards and protocols to assess forward collision avoidance systems in commercial vehicles, and expand the New Car Assessment Program 5-star rating system to include the performance of such systems.

In June 2016, NHTSA published “Field Study of Heavy-Vehicle Crash Avoidance Systems,” which sampled 6,000 Crash Avoidance System activations from over 3 million miles and 110,000 hours of naturalistic data in order to evaluate their reliability. The systems studied included automatic emergency braking, impact, stationary object and following distance alerts, and lane departure warnings. None of systems that were activated were associated with collisions, nor did companies report any rear-end collisions involving the vehicles in the study. The percentage of false AEB activation was generally low and of short duration. The study concluded that “though the systems as a whole appeared to have a safety benefit, false activations were also observed. False AEB activations were much shorter, on average, as compared to other AEB activations, but could still frustrate or annoy drivers. This balance between informing and annoying drivers must be considered when designing the sensitivity of CAS technology.” The study did not observe that these technologies led to any changes in the driving behavior. The agency recommended further study.  

Despite these reports and the promises of efficacy research, the federal government does not require truck manufacturers to install Forward Collision Warning systems, even as the European Union has moved to require AEB on heavy trucks.

In June 2015, the agency mandated ESC for new Class 7 and 8 tractors by 2017, estimating that it would save 49 lives, prevent 1,759 crashes, and create $300 million in economic benefits annually. However, it did not require that the ESC be paired with other collision avoidance systems for maximum benefit.

In October 2015, NHTSA granted a petition for rulemaking filed that February by the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Road Safe America to establish a safety standard to require automatic forward collision avoidance and mitigation systems on certain heavy vehicles. In the Federal Register Notice, the agency noted its own research in this area and reported that industry was on the cusp making the next generation of automatic braking systems commercially available.  These new systems would “have improved performance that enables the vehicle to warn the driver and automatically brake in response to stationary lead vehicles. In addition to the increased performance from the next generation systems, industry is also expected to begin production of automatic emergency braking systems on air-braked single unit trucks with a GVWR of more than 26,000 pounds in the near future,” the notice said.

The public docket has but one letter of support from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and no other comments, and in the three years hence, the rulemaking does not appear to have advanced at all.

The FMCSA has published new rules that restrict texting and cell phones by truck and bus drivers while driving, but that has not deterred inattentive truck drivers who face serious prison time in cases where distraction results in a fatal crash. In the last six months, there have been at least three such sentencings. 

In December, semi-driver Nathan Frazier was sentenced to 11 years in prison for a 2015 crash that killed a teenager in Travis County, Texas. Frazier was looking at his GPS when he ran a red light and slammed into a Nissan Altima.

In July, a New York State Supreme Court judge sentenced 28-year-old truck driver Kristofer Gregorek to up to four and a half years for a crash that killed a University of Buffalo nursing professor. Gregorek was shopping online and filling out a customer satisfaction survey on his cell phone when he rear-ended Ellen Volpe at 70 mph.

In June, Jasvir Bariana Singh, a truck driver from  Indianapolis drew a four-year sentence for a multi-car crash on I-84 in Connecticut that killed a 19-year-old passenger in a vehicle that was impacted in the chain collision. Singh, on his way from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts with a load of candy, was also on his cell phone when he crashed into a traffic backup.

A year ago, the magazine Fleet Owner published a story on the desirability of mandating forward collision warning systems, and opened with this question: Should we or shouldn’t we? A better question is: why the hell not?

CPSC Takes on ROV Fire Hazards

For more than a decade, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has been tracking the hazards associated with Recreational Off-Road Vehicles (ROV), with a focus on their poor handling, lateral stability, and dynamics. But the epidemic of Polaris ROV fires has shifted the commission’s attention to the dearth of industry standards to prevent ROV designs and malfunctions from sparking deadly fires.

In September, the CPSC’s Directorate of Engineering Sciences Caroleene Paul met with the Specialty Vehicles Institute of America to lay out the commission’s case for setting fire prevention standards in the wake of a $27.25 million civil penalty levied against Polaris Industries. The Medina, Minnesota, manufacturer paid the fine to settle two charges of untimely disclosure to the CPSC that “models of RZR and Ranger recreational off-road vehicles (ROVs) contained defects that could create a substantial product hazard or that the ROVs created an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.”

Polaris agreed to that penalty – without any admissions of guilt – in April. One charge concerned 133,000 model year 2013-2016 RZR 900 and model year 2014-2016 RZR 1000 ROVs that caught fire while consumers were driving, posing fire and burn hazards to drivers and passengers. According to the commission, by the time Polaris reported the defect to the CPSC in April 2016, it had tallied 150 fires, including one death to a 15-year old passenger, 11 burn injuries, and a fire that consumed ten acres of land. The other charge concerned model years 2014-2015 Ranger XP 900 and Crew 900 vehicles that had heat shields that became loose and fell off. Polaris received 36 reports of fire and made two design changes before informing the CPSC.

Neither the recalls, nor the fine have stopped the Polaris fires. In fact, in December 2017, the agency and the manufacturer released a joint statement admitting as much:

… users of the vehicles that were repaired as part of the April 2016 recall continue to report fires, including total-loss fires. The 2017 RZRs were not included in the April 2016 recall, but these models have also experienced fires. The CPSC and Polaris continue to work together to ensure fire risks in these vehicles are addressed. However, at this time, the CPSC and Polaris want to make the public aware of the fires involving these vehicles.

One can only hope that voluntary standard-setting is a companion activity for the CPSC, because as that process proceeds at its molasses-in-January pace, Polaris ROV owners face considerable risks of harm in the interim. 

“So far, the response from the CPSC and Polaris has been underwhelming. Even after these recalls, Polaris ROVs are continuing to ignite and cause enormous human damage,” says attorney Jeffrey Eisenberg, of the Salt Lake City firm of Eisenberg, Gilchrist & Cutt, who has represented 10 families of Polaris fire victims. Among them is Colby Thompson. In July, Thompson was riding his 2017 Polaris RZR up an embankment in Bozeman, Montana, when the ROV burst into flames. The RZR had only been driven 20 miles; Thompson’s burns to his upper body were so severe, he was placed in a medically induced coma.

“Polaris has ignored this problem for far too long, and has done too little to remedy its RZR problems,” said Eisenberg. “There is no way that a RZR manufactured in 2017 with 20 miles of service should combust. My clients have paid the ultimate price for this corporate misconduct.”

The Hottest ROVs on the Market

Why can’t Polaris keep its powerful ROVs from burning up? A class-action lawsuit complaint, filed April 5 in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, alleges that Polaris fires are caused by a design defect plaguing multiple models spanning the 2011-2018 model years.

Polaris has been the undisputed king of the ROV market for at least a decade, netting $3.36 billion in sales in 2016. One of the biggest factors in its commercial success has been the production of high-powered ROVs featuring its in-house designed Pro-Star engine family, introduced in the 2011 RZR XP 900, and phased in to all of its ROVs by 2015. The civil action further argues that the real root cause of the fire risk is:

an unusually high-powered “ProStar” engine that is tucked directly behind the occupant compartment. The ProStar engine produces more power than the engines in competing vehicles and, accordingly, more heat. The ProStar’s exhaust gas piping routes forward toward the occupants, then turns 180 degrees, creating a U-shape, and exits from the rear. The piping lacks proper ventilation and heat shielding, and is positioned within inches of combustible plastic body panels. Thus, the hottest area of this high-performance engine is located inches behind the occupants, in an area of the vehicle that is enclosed with little room for air flow to dissipate the high heat. The extremely high temperatures, combined with inadequate cooling and heat shielding, result in the melting of the plastic body panels and the ignition of any combustible material surrounding the engine, including organic debris, leading to potentially deadly fires.

When tallying all of the Polaris products that combine a high-performance engine with poor placement and inadequate venting, the lawsuit, filed in April 2018, alleged that the true total of the damage since 2013, based on Polaris’ recalls, is more than 250 fires, more than 30 severe injuries, and at least three deaths. Those numbers are likely a significant undercount because, according to CPSC and Polaris, some models have burned but have not been recalled and fires continued to occur even in models that had recall repairs.

Setting ROV Standards

There are currently no mandatory safety standards governing the design and manufacture of off-road recreational vehicles. In October 2009, the CPSC published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address the “unreasonable risks of injury and death associated with Recreational Off-Highway Vehicles,” related to their rollover propensity.

(The CPSC distinguishes ROVs from ATVs as “motorized vehicles having four or more low pressure tires designed for off-road use and intended by the manufacturer primarily for recreational use by one or more persons.” ROVs are commonly called Side-by-Sides for their seating arrangement. Unlike an ATV, which is straddled by the rider with handlebar steering,  ROVs resemble small, rugged, Jeep-like vehicle, accommodating one to six occupants.)

The commission moved to rulemaking after determining that voluntary standard efforts did not do enough to rein in deaths and injuries caused by the vehicles’ poor lateral stability and vehicle handling, and the lack of occupant protection features, such as seatbelts. This touched off a seven-year, concerted effort between the CPSC and industry to beef up ROVs’ performance requirements. In November 2016, after the Recreational Off-Road Vehicle Association (ROHVA) and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) finalized amending their ANSI voluntary standards to the CPSC’s satisfaction, the staff recommended that the rulemaking be terminated. The staff concluded that the new standards would likely reduce ROV rollovers, by increasing lateral stability and decreasing occupant ejections through seat-belt use and improved side retention.

The brief public portion of the meeting in September at the Grand Hyatt hotel at Dallas-Fort Worth airport featured a presentation on voluntary standards-setting to address ROV fire hazards by Mechanical Engineer Han Lim of the CPSC’s Division of Mechanical Combustion Engineering. Attendees included Honda, Polaris, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Textron and members from the OPEI.

Lim noted the lack of any safety standards regarding ROV thermal or fire issues, despite the diverse sources of ignition – debris intrusion, fuel tank integrity, and flammable plastic body panels, for example. Since 2004, ROV manufacturers have launched some 47 recalls for a variety of defects that could result in fires, such as fuel tanks, hoses, and filters; electrical components; and exhaust systems. In addition, the CPSC has launched at least 120 ROV fire In-Depth Investigations since 2004, when the agency began to track this trend.

The CPSC recommended forming task groups to study the recall data and CPSC In-Depth Investigation reports in formulating improvements and standards. Lim recommended the group focus on fuel tank punctures, structural integrity of the engine, the fuel system and electrical components and spacing requirements to shield ignitable parts from excessive heat. Lim also suggested that the group look at surface temperature limits to prevent contact burn injuries and standards to prevent debris penetration. The CPSC ended its presentation by speculating that manufacturers already had internal standards that addressed thermal issues, and by expressing its preference that industry representatives codify them in a voluntary safety standard. The commission offered its assistance in that process. The OEMs thanked the CPSC, agreed to look over the data and get back to the agency, but set no timetable for doing so.

Market Pressures Raise the Heat on Honda Pioneers

Polaris is hardly the only manufacturer to create a fire hazard in the pursuit of market share. The May 15 recall for all 2016-2017 and some 2018 Honda Pioneer 1000 ROV models for fire and burn hazards is another good example of how trying to wrap every desired market attribute into one ROV without adequate cooling and thermal protection can create fire-prone designs.

Honda introduced the Pioneer 1000 in 2015 for the 2016 model year, to compete in the side-by-side market with competitor vehicles that seated four to six passengers and cargo, but with the improved trail capabilities associated with smaller two-occupant models. Typically, manufacturers use a longer wheel base to fit more passengers and cargo, but do so typically enlarges the turning radius and reduces its maneuverability on off-road trails. Honda bragged that it had overcome that problem with its own “packaging technology,” that mostly consisted of placing an engine in the center of the vehicle under the occupant compartment. Roomy? Check – the Pioneer fit up to five occupants. Peppy? Check – a large displacement twin-cylinder delivered 72 HP and a top speed of 67 mph. Agile? Check – the Pioneer 1000 boasted a shorter wheelbase and turning radius.

What did customers get for all of that? Hotter-than-hell occupant compartments and major thermal management problems that produced complaints, burns, fires, and a Honda Product Improvement Campaign, followed by the recall.  

In August 2017, Honda issued Product Improvement Campaign for a “Cabin Comfort Improvement Kit,” which included weather stripping, seals, and rubber mats and pads, presumably to reduce the high temperatures in the occupant seating area. According to the bulletin:

American Honda Motor Co., Inc. is conducting a Product Improvement Campaign to improve cabin comfort on 2016 and 2017 model year Pioneer 1000 vehicles. With the addition of an accessory roof and windscreen/windshield and under hot weather conditions, occupants may experience uncomfortable heat coming from the engine compartment. A cabin comfort improvement kit that reduces the entry of hot air and lowers front seat area surface temperatures is available.

Nine months later, Honda was forced to recall all 2016-2017 and some 2018 Honda Pioneer 1000 because the “muffler can overheat, causing the plastic heat shield to melt or catch fire, posing a fire and burn hazard to consumers.” The Honda Powersports website offered an additional root-cause fact: the heat shield itself was melting or igniting due to “one engine cylinder misfire condition.”

Mitigating Heat Build-up with Better Design

Polaris’ and others’ inability to design an ROV that can go fast without burning up itself and its passengers has created a whole aftermarket for accessories that mitigate heat accumulation –which owners don’t discover they need until they experience the problem themselves. One 2016 article for UTV enthusiasts introduced six products to keep a RZR Turbo from overheating:

We have heard a few RZR Turbo owners complaining of their engines overheating. Under super hard driving, under load, we have had it happen to us too. So there has [sic] been a number of companies trying to address the issue, and they have come up with some pretty interesting products.

The universe of heat-reducing products includes the Polaris RZR Regulator Rectifier. Manufactured by Rick’s Motorsport Electrics, the Rectifier “is built using Mosfet Technology, allowing the regulator to run cooler & more efficiently. Rick’s worked with RZR owners to customize a part that is easy to install and will solve common overheating issues.” There is also the CBR Radiator & Heat Exchanger Combo: “If you’re going to race or even fully build out a XP Turbo, getting completely rid of any potential heating problems is a major concern. CBR has been building custom, oversized and race spec’d radiators and intercoolers for a long time now. The BMP 2016-Up RZR XP Turbo Slip-On Double Barrel Exhaust “drastically reduces heat buildup.”

Finally, a clutch-cooling device called “The Blow Hole,” a fan that expels hot air “even at low ground speeds as opposed to the OEM rpm dependent clutch fins. According to a review in ATV MTNK, the Blow Hole pulls approximately 225 CFM of air through the clutch ductwork.”

Meanwhile, Can-Am, a brand owned by Bombardier Recreational Products, has tried to get the design right the first time. In 2013, BRP debuted the Can-Am Maverick 1000 series, with a 1,000cc twin-cylinder Rotax engine, rated for 101 horsepower.  In this design, the engine is located underneath the center of the chassis and beneath the passenger compartment, but it modified the air intake and exhaust tract to create what the company calls “High-Flow Dynamics.”  

According to reviewer John Arens in ATV Illustrated, First Look: “The air intake location, the air plenum size, and exhaust valve size were all increased, and the exhaust tubes are now a dual, tuned length system that flows through dual mufflers at the rear. We’ve always noticed a slight throttle lag in the past thanks to air flow restrictions, and the new High-Flow system should eliminate that trait.” Elsewhere, he noted: “[w]ith the area around the muffler now open for better airflow, temperatures around the exhaust system are reduced as well.” Unlike the Polaris ROVs, the dual exhaust pipes remained separate, with a “tuned length system that flows through dual mufflers at the rear.”

In 2012, reviewer Lance Schwartz of ATV Rider pointed out another key difference between the RZR and the Can-Am: “Exhaust gases travel from the cylinders through individually tuned headers, resonators, industry-first catalytic converters and eventually exit through dual exhausts.”

How Long Before Industry Addresses its Fire Problems?

The federal government spent seven years tango-ing with ROV manufacturers over voluntary standards to prevent their products from flipping over, spewing or crushing occupants. That dance included the threat of rulemaking, independent CPSC lateral stability testing, and innumerable meetings with industry types to get to a place of – if not a mandatory standard – recognition and notice that manufacturers must design these vehicles to certain criteria to prevent these crashes, injuries and deaths.

What’s it going to take to make the industry address its thermal problems? As the public portion of the September industry-CPSC confab only lasted for about 30 minutes, it was hard to take the temperature of the room. But perhaps the regulated and the regulator can learn something from the last go-round, and cut right to setting rigorous safety and engineering design standards so that manufacturers don’t ignite the vehicle or the occupants on their way to the bank.


NHTSA Gets Real on Tire Fatalities

Safety Fact: 733 is the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2016 in which a contributing factor was tire malfunction.

Safety Fiction: On average, 200 people die each year in tire-related crashes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration happens to be the purveyors of both tidbits, and the discrepancy is not just a matter of facts, it’s a matter of rulemaking and a matter of mixed messaging.

For years, the agency clung to the lower figure, based on a suspect methodology, and used this figure to forego a rulemaking on tire age and to educate the public about tire safety. In December 2014, Randy Whitfield, of Quality Control Systems Corp presented a statistical analysis of tire crash data, challenging this particular agency statistic  at the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) two-day Tire Safety Symposium in Washington, DC. The symposium gathered stakeholders to share information on tire age, the recall system, tire construction, technology and tire-related crash data with the NTSB. Co-authored by Alice Whitfield, the study criticizing NHTSA's tire-related fatality counts was commissioned by The Safety Institute.

And now, nearly four years later, NHTSA has apparently decided to revise its estimate of tire-involved crash fatalities to something more reality-like, and to publish it in at least one place on its website.

“Safety advocates and proponents of the scientific method who have been asking for accurate, tire-related crash statistics are going to have to come to terms with getting 'yes' for an answer,” says Randy Whitfield. “Why is this important? Now that we know these crashes aren’t going away, now that we know the tire aging problem may not have been resolved by existing regulations, what are we going to do about it? Why can’t we put an easy-to-find and easy-to-read date of manufacture on a tire's sidewall?  Why is that too hard?”  

There are several possible sources of tire-related crash information, including state accident reports, Early Warning Reports, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study, and the National Automotive Sampling System/Crashworthiness Data System (NASS/CDS).

In 2014, NHTSA relied upon NASS/CDS data to show near-miraculous results of an upgrade of FMVSS 139. In a report released in May of that year, the agency said that its most recent analysis of tire-related crash data from 2007 through 2010 showed “a 35 percent reduction in tire crashes (17,019 to 11,047), a 50 percent reduction in fatalities (386 to 195) and a 42 percent reduction in injuries (11,005 to 6,361) when compared with annual averages from 1995 through 2006. The overall fatalities decreased by 20 percent between 2007 and 2010 (dropping from 41,059 to 32,885 fatalities), and overall police reported crashes decreased by 10 percent between 2007 and 2010 (dropping from 6,024,000 to 5,419,000).”

The agency attributed these decreases to requirements for tire pressure monitoring systems in new vehicles, along with “a more stringent FMVSS No. 139” that helped “create better-quality and safer tires.”  It concluded: “At this time, the agency does not believe it is necessary for motor vehicle safety to add a tire aging requirement to its light vehicle tire standard.”

Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane, also the founder of The Safety Institute, said “I have no doubt that FMVSS 139 – which was the first real upgrade to the tire standards since its original promulgation decades earlier – improved tire robustness. But, tires are not impervious to age degradation and absent easily identified dates of manufacture and clear and accessible guidelines on service life, tire age-related failures will continue to cause death and injury particularly because old tires can look just like a new tires – it’s an invisible hazard.” 

In his presentation before the NTSB, Whitfield demonstrated that NASS/CDS was a weak foundation on which to base any claims of tire-related crash trends. NASS/CDS is a probability sample of police reported tow-away crashes involving passenger cars, light trucks, and vans. Whitfield argued that the relatively small sample produced annual estimates that were based on very few actual crashes, resulting in unreliable estimates and trends that were more likely due to statistical noise rather than to true yearly difference. The NTSB also pointed out that the sample was heavily skewed geographically – the vast majority of the fatal tire-related crashes in NASS/CDS during the period 1995‒2012 were located in Arizona (41 of 64 fatal crashes). 

In contrast, Whitfield said that FARS, as an actual census of all fatal crashes on public roads in the US which includes data about tire-related crash factors, provided a much more realistic view of tire crash trends.

The probability estimates that NASS/CDS produced didn’t come close to matching the FARS count, Whitfield argued. Nor did it reflect a basic tenant of the tire failures – that they are related to heat and climactic conditions and increase along with temperatures. NASS/CDS estimates did not show a seasonal pattern.   

The NTSB’s October 2015 report agreed that a comparison of NASS/CDS to FARS data showed “the NASS/CDS data appear to underestimate the number of tire-related crashes, injuries, and fatalities. Additionally, for this particular factor, NASS/CDS did not provide a representative distribution of tire-related crashes across the United States.” The Board recommended that NHTSA go back and determine the actual level of crash risk associated with tire aging since the new FMVSS 138 and 139 came into effect; and “if it appears that the aging-related risk should be mitigated, develop and implement a plan to promote the tire-aging test protocol to reduce the risk. (H-15-33).” 

In 2016, then-Administrator Mark Rosekind made a head-scratching reply. He told the NTSB that NHTSA had already done the analysis in 2014, and suggested that since the new requirements of FMVSS 138 and 139 came into effect in September 2007, and since manufacturers recommend that vehicle owners replace tires after 10 years, there wasn’t “a significant amount of crash data currently available with which to analyze FMVSS No. 139 compliant tires that have aged significantly past a manufacturer's suggested lifespan.” 

So in 2016, NHTSA didn’t have enough data to determine if FMVSS 139 is effective, but two years earlier it had enough to show amazing results and to decide there was no need for a rulemaking. Okay, Mark.

The Safety Institute, which originally sponsored Whitfield’s statistical analysis of tire-related crash trends, has sent a letter to Acting NHTSA Administrator Deputy Administrator Heidi King to request that NHTSA fix that annual tire-related crash fatalities figures in its other educational materials to match the actual figures. (Read The Safety Institute's letter here.)

That would not be welcomed by the Tire Industry Association. In April 2014, its president Roy Littlefield sent a snippy letter to NHTSA declining to promote NHTSA’s In the Garage Infographic and educational video. (Read the Tire Industry Association's letter here.) While the TIA approved of NHTSA refraining from making any specific tire age recommendations, opting instead to urge consumers to have annual tire inspections,  it took extreme umbrage at NHTSA downgrading its annual estimate of how many people die in tire-related crashes each year from 400 to 200: 

“It is one thing to say that '400 people die every year as a result of tire failure due to improper inflation' and something completely different to just say any number of people die as the result of tire failures. The message as it stands tells consumers that tires are dangerous products because they kill hundreds of people each year.  The actual number is inconsequential because it does not tell the whole story unless it is tied directly to the lack of maintenance. Nothing has changed since September of last year because lowering the number to 200 doesn’t make it any less misleading.  Two hundred people die every year in tire-related crashes as a result of what?” he wrote. 

So how many people die each year in tire-related crashes? 200? 400? 700? It’s hard to get a grip on reality when your agendas inform your figures, rather than the other way around.

The Persistence of Rollaway

In the last three months, two auto manufacturers recalled more than a million vehicles with defects that can cause a failure to lock the vehicle in Park, allowing it to roll away.

Last week, Ford recalled more than 504,000 2013-2014 Escape and 2014-2016 Fusion vehicles over deteriorated bushings that could detach from the transmission shifter cable, allowing the driver to move the shift lever to Park and remove the key, when the transmission is not actually in the Park position. On June 18, Fiat Chrysler recalled 240,242 Chrysler Pacifica minivans because the plastic plug over its Manual Park Release – which allows the driver to override the gear selection – could be pried off without the use of a tool, as required by regulation. A driver could too easily access the release and set the SUV to roll. In April, Ford also issued two safety recalls for nearly 350,000 new F-150 pickup trucks and Expedition SUVs because a roll pin attaching the park pawl rod guide cup to the transmission case was not installed in some of the vehicles, causing the transmission to eventually lose the Park function even when the shifter and instrument panel display indicate that the vehicle was in Park.

Recalls and investigations going back to the 1970s show that rollaway is a persistent and diverse problem. Broken parts, like pawls and rods, still dominate as root causes. But technological changes, such as keyless ignitions and new electronic transmission gear shift designs (e-shifters) have expanded the map. For example, FCA’s notorious Monostable e-shifter, linked to at least 266 crashes, 308 reports of property damage and 68 injuries, was criticized for confusing drivers about the gear state. The design proved so troublesome, FCA abandoned it in the Dodge Charger and Chrysler vehicles after the 2015 model year and in the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the 2016 model year.

In the last decade, NHTSA opened 18 investigations and automakers have launched 93 recalls related to vehicle rollaway. While the causes vary, today’s e-shifters and Electric Parking Brakes (EPBs) give automakers options to prevent it. EPBs have been available for a decade, and can prevent rollaways caused by mechanical failures and driver error. Vehicles with e-shifters can be designed to include automatic Park engagement when the driver doesn’t shift the vehicle into Park. While these features have been available and in use for many years, they still aren’t widespread enough in the U.S. fleet.

New Ways to Rollaway: Novel Shifters

One of the new root causes of rollaway in the modern automobile are new shifter designs that confuse the driver about the state of the transmission. Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA) has amply demonstrated the bad consequences of poor transmission shifter design with the introduction of the Monostable and dash-mounted rotary dial shifters.

With the former, the driver changing gears must depress a button on the shift lever and move it to the gear position, then the lever springs back to a centered/neutral position. The gear is displayed on the lever and on the dashboard. In an investigation, NHTSA found that the Monostable shifter was “not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”

The rotary dial design suffered from poor placement on the dash. Some drivers complained that the interface was “awkward” and it isn’t always clear if the vehicle was actually in Park.  

Chrysler began installing it on the Dodge Ram in 2013, and added it to other models, such as the Chrysler 200 and Chrysler 300. The rotary shifter is located on the instrument panel with the PRNDL displayed both above the shifter control and in the Electronic Vehicle Information Center. Drivers must press the brake pedal to shift out of Park or to shift from Neutral into Drive or Reverse.

The rotary dial shifter’s placement has drivers confusing the knob with another instrument panel control – the radio volume knob. Last month, some sharp-eyed Reddit users and auto website Jalopnik had some fun with a Chrysler Pacifica commercial that showed the driver mistakenly turn the rotary shifter, when she means to turn down the radio volume. (Chrysler Pacifica Commercial Appears to Show Actor Using Transmission Shift Knob to Adjust Volume

Actress Kathryn Hahn plays a mom rocking out to Fergie, as she waits in the school pick-up line for her children. About 25 seconds into the clip, as her children open the car door, Hahn hurriedly reaches to turn down the music – only she turns the rotary shifter – not the radio volume.  

Others complained that the rotary dial itself was confusing, leading them to mistakenly leave the vehicle in reverse, when the transmission was actually in Drive. According to one 2014 Ram 1500 owner in Ivyland, Pennsylvania:

I am sending this complaint regarding the gear selector knob that I believe poses a safety concern due to the 5 or 6 times that I have exited my vehicle while it was running and still in gear. On a few occasions I thought that I turned the gear selector knob to park when I actually turned it to reverse. I opened the door and began to exit my truck when it began to roll backwards. I have a 2010 ram with a normal shift selector lever and never had this issue. I thought that it might take a little time to get used to the knob style, but after 20 months, I am still having issues. I have spoken to others with this style knob and they have experienced the same issue. Each time this occurred was in my driveway either getting the mail or to run into the garage to get something.

Regardless of the way the driver executes a shift, the Monostable and rotary dial don’t physically move the gearshift into a detent.  They send a gear request from the driver via the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus to the Transmission Control Module which then makes the requested shift. In the last three years, these FCA e-shift controlled transmissions have been the subject of recalls, investigations and technical service bulletins. The complaints indicate the possibility of both electronic and mechanical defects.

NHTSA has opened investigations on both of these e-shifters. (See Chrysler’s Shifty Shifter and the Wacky World of Defects and Fiat Chrysler’s Transmission Woes Continue)

New Ways to Roll Away: Keyless Ignitions

Keyless ignition vehicles have also increased the opportunities for rollaway by initiating human errors. In these systems, the “key” is the invisible electronic code which is delivered to the vehicle via the plastic fob. Once the code, via a radio signal, enters the ignition, the fob’s engine activating job is done. You can still use the fob to lock and unlock the doors and trunk, or remotely start the vehicle, but the fob does nothing to turn the car off. The driver must press the Start/Stop button, physically put the transmission in Park and open the driver’s door.

Thus, you can kill the engine, forget to put the transmission in Park, and walk away with fob.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 Anti-Theft and Rollaway requires a vehicle to be locked in Park or automatically lock into the Park position as a condition of removing the key. But in 2006, as NHTSA amended the standard to address electronic ignition systems, it helped manufacturers avoid actually implementing transmission designs that automatically perform the function by giving them a crib sheet. In the Final Rule, the agency noted:  “Systems using an electronic code instead of conventional key would satisfy the rollaway prevention provisions if the code remained in the vehicle until the transmission gear is locked in the “Park” position.”

And manufacturers did just that – concocting complicated strategies to keep the vehicle in compliance while keeping the driver utterly clueless about the state of the vehicle and ignoring the actual intent of FMVSS 114. Many, many keyless systems address the scenario in which the driver remembers to turn the engine off, but forgets to shift into Park, by reverting the vehicle’s power state to Accessory Mode. That means that some of the vehicle’s electrical functions, such as the radio or headlights still work, and more to the point, the “key” is still in the ignition, while the fob may be tucked into a purse with or a pocket on the driver, miles away.

Most automakers bury this information somewhere in the 500-plus pages of the owner’s manual, so the driver is effectively ignorant of the status of the “key.” Regulations require automaker to warn the driver via an audible or visual warning that the key is still in the vehicle. Most also warn the driver that the transmission is not in Park – because that is a condition of removing the “key” from the vehicle’s ignition module. But many vehicle warnings are poorly executed – visual telltales that will be missed because the driver is not looking at the dash while exiting, or chimes that sound exactly like other vehicle warnings. 

To avoid angering customers who might return to a car with a dead battery, automakers designed systems that automatically turn the power off if the engine is off, but the vehicle ignition is in accessory mode for a pre-set number of minutes. However, in many vehicles this scenario will leave the transmission in whatever gear the driver left it in, free to roll.

In 2011, NHTSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, in attempt to clean up the mess they made in 2006. The NPRM recognized that the current keyless ignition systems had led to driver confusion, resulting in vehicles left running and/or out of the “Park” position. It also acknowledged that under the current designs, drivers can and do exit the vehicle without the transmission locked in Park, and sometimes without actually turning off the engine. The NPRM noted that the lack of standardization in combination with the lack of visual and tactile cues about the status of the vehicle engine has set the stage for the real world incidents.

The proposal adds a requirement for an internal and external alert that the driver and bystanders can hear when the vehicle is not in “Park”’ and the driver exits the vehicle – unless the transmission becomes locked in “Park”’ as a direct result of key removal upon door opening, or upon removal of the key code carrying device from the vehicle. (See Keyed Up With Anticipation: Smart Key Hazards Still Unresolved.) 

The NPRM, which was criticized by industry and advocates alike for its non-scientific approach, has not advanced in nearly seven years. But recently, four Democratic U.S. Senators: Bob Casey (D-PA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) wrote to NHTSA calling the delay unacceptable and urging the agency to finalize the rulemaking. The senators focused their attention on the CO deaths and injuries associated with keyless vehicles: 

“NHTSA’s lack of action has allowed other automakers to state publicly that their keyless ignition systems meet or exceed all relevant federal safety standards, despite the known and unaddressed dangers. This difference in response across the auto industry highlights the importance and necessity for a federal standard to be established and enforced without further delay,” they wrote.

Broken Parts

The majority of vehicle rollaways are caused by a wide range of mechanical, software and electronic failures. Out of a total of about 160 rollaway recalls since the 1970s, the vast majority are related to material or manufacturing deficiencies. Numerous vehicle components, such as the brake-to-shift-interlock failures, and drive shaft and axle can breakages, have led to a rollaway. In addition, vehicle software and electrical circuits can introduce problems that lead to the same condition. Consider these four recalls from the past few years:

  • In December 2015 Ford recalled 1,170 Transit vehicles from the 2015 model year equipped with dual rear wheels were mis-manufactured. An analysis of fractured drive shafts obtained from some of these vehicles found indication of unacceptable material grain flow during the forging process that could lead to axle fracture. A fractured axle could result in a loss of motive power or unintended vehicle movement when the transmission shift lever is placed in the Park position without the parking brake applied.
  • In May 2017, Volkswagen recalled five Audi Q5 vehicles with a gearbox manufacturing defect. Volkswagen stated that when the shift selector is moved to the Park position the gearbox may not engage the parking pawl, leading to a false park and potential for a rollaway.
  • In July 2017 FCA recalled 7,802 2017 Dodge Challengers for a software flaw that could inhibit the transmission from maintaining mechanical Park when the shift lever is moved to the Park position. FCA described the problem as Transmission Control Module software that “introduced longer clutch pressure vent gradients to improve shift quality. A longer clutch pressure vent rate increases the rate at which these vehicles may set a P1DDD fault. Setting a P1DDD fault will result in the vehicle automatically shifting into a 6th-gear limp mode instead of PARK.Vehicles experience P1DDD when venting the clutch pressure takes longer than 1.25 sec and too many clutches are still engaged.”“When a P1DDD fault is set the shifter will show “D”, the instrument cluster will show “D”, the instrument cluster will show a warning message “Service TransPress Brake When Stopped Key Off Engine to Engage Park”, and a repeating audible chime will sound. If the door is opened a “Vehicle Not In Park” message will also be displayed, the EVIC will alternate between the two messages and continue to chime.”
  • In November 2017 Toyota recalled 2018 model year C-HR vehicles because an oxide film could form on the electric parking brake (EPB) motor, as an open circuit, when the EPB has not been operated for a while. ECU identification of the open circuit would result in illumination of warning lights and a message displayed which states: “EPB Malfunction. Visit Your Dealer.” The condition could cause the parking brake to fail to release and in some cases, it can prevent the parking brake from being applied.

Rollaway Countermeasures for the Modern Age

Keyless ignition vehicles will only become more ubiquitous. Who knows what thrilling new transmission shifter will start a whole new round of automotive mayhem?

In the meantime, the industry has had two countermeasures at its disposal to keep a vehicle in place: the electric parking brake in tandem with auto-hold features. The electric parking brake has been around since at least 2001. According to a 2015 press release from supplier TRW, FCA was among the automakers who have implemented this feature: “ZF TRW was first-to-market with its EPB system in 2001, which pioneered with Lancia, Audi and VW and has since launched on Renault, Nissan and Daimler platforms, and more recently on the BMW X4 and BMW i8, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Ford F150, Honda Accord, Nissan Qashqai, Range Rover Evoque and more.”

EPBs replace manual parking brakes to hold the vehicle stationary on hills and flat roads.

They have been touted as the more economical choice, both in terms of interior space and per-unit cost. The manual parking brake lever or foot pedal was replaced by a small switch, and there were fewer mechanical parts to wear out:

“With EPB, the driver activates the holding mechanism with a button and the brake pads are then electrically applied onto the rear brakes. This is accomplished by an Electronic Control Unit (ECU) and an actuator mechanism. There are two mechanisms currently used in vehicle production, cable puller systems and caliper integrated systems, such ZF TRW’s EPB. In caliper integrated systems, the brake caliper provides a connection between hydraulic actuation of the foot brake and electrically actuated parking brake. The motor or transmission unit (actuator), which operates the parking brake, is screw-fixed directly to the brake caliper housing. The parking brake is actuated via a switch in the vehicle interior. The absence of a hand brake lever frees up space inside the vehicle. With no hand brake cables, there are no temperature problems (such as freezing) or mechanical wear, offering optimum brake power in all conditions.”


The improved passive safety features included various versions to keep vehicles from rolling. For example, one article notes: “On the other hand if the driver forgets to apply the park brake it may be programmed to operate automatically, if the gear select lever is in Park or Neutral and the seat belt is released as the door is opened. Not all manufacturers offer this sort of facility.”

TRW’s auto-park feature specifically applies the parking brake in scenarios in which the vehicle transmission is in a gear other than Park and the driver opens the door to exit. According to a 2002 technical paper by a TRW engineer: “Another conceivable function is an automatic application command if the driver leaves the driving seat when the vehicle is at a standstill (e.g. detected by seat-occupant detection or the door switch).”

Some manufacturers use this type of technology. For example, the Hyundai Genesis, as far back as 2010, has a feature called Auto Hold in models with the Electric Parking Brake (EPB): “The AUTO HOLD keeps the vehicle stopped after the driver brings the vehicle to a complete stop with the foot brake and releases the brake pedal.”  The AUTO HOLD doesn’t operate when the driver’s door is open and/or the Shift lever is in Park. However, it automatically switches to the EPB in a variety of scenarios, including: “the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled and the driver’s door is open.”

In the 2014 model year, FCA added a similar feature to the Jeep Cherokee: “Safehold is a safety feature of the Electric Park Brake System that will engage the park brake automatically if the vehicle is left unsecured while the ignition switch is in RUN.” For automatic transmissions, the park brake will automatically engage if the vehicle is at a standstill, there is no attempt to depress the brake pedal or accelerator pedal, the seat belt is unbuckled and the driver door is open.

In the 2016 Monostable shifter recall campaign, Fiat Chrysler fixed the rollaway problem in some of its vehicles by installing a different strategy – also called AutoPark. FCA describes it “is an enhanced securement strategy which places the vehicle in “PARK” if the driver attempts to exit the vehicle before placing the rotary gear shift selector in the “PARK” position.” Rather than apply a parking brake, this feature – which can be included in any vehicle with an E-shift control and minimal software, is used by other manufacturers, actually moves the transmission into the Park position. FCA also added this feature to the 2017 Dodge Ram.

As more vehicle makes and models employ electronic shifters or add electric parking brakes, it may be possible to reduce the number of rollaway incidents. In the meantime, rollaway caused by design errors (including those that increase the likelihood of operator error), manufacturing defects and mechanical failures will continue to wreak its unique form of property and human damage.

NHTSA’s King Side-Steps Keyless Question

Heidi King is probably going to be the 16th administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But this week, the agency’s current deputy administrator took some heat from the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at her confirmation hearing over a variety of unresolved safety issues – including keyless ignition.

Under intense questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about the “defective” design on most keyless ignition systems, King declined to commit to moving the agency forward to a Final Rule on Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 Anti-Theft and Rollaway. The agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in December 2011, which would have required automakers – among other things – to install louder, and more uniform audible warnings to alert a driver who exits with the fob and inadvertently leaves the vehicle engine running.

King avoided a direct answer to Blumenthal’s request that the agency resume rulemaking, investigate all of the carbon monoxide poisoning deaths attributed to keyless vehicles, and raise the profile of this issue among the public.

“Absolutely on number 3,” King said. But she was purposefully vague about agreeing to further actions.

“As you know, it’s heartbreaking, but hundreds of Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year because of combustion and confined spaces, she said, later adding: “We will continue to [sic] scrutinizing the facts and acting as we are allowed within the law.”

Safety Research & Strategies has been studying the carbon monoxide and rollaway hazard issues introduced by keyless systems with push-button ignitions since 2009 and sharing its findings with NHTSA. The Safety Record has been reporting on issue since 2011, breaking stories about the 2014 NHTSA compliance probe into keyless systems ( NHTSA Opens Smart Key Compliance Probe)  and more recently, GM’s quiet implementation of automatic engine shutdown feature (General Motors Quietly Installs Keyless Engine Shutoff ). But it was a recent front-page New York Times story on the safety issues that keyless ignition that re-ignited the discussion about finalizing the rule and investigating CO deaths tied to keyless ignitions.

One note The Safety Record thought that everyone ought to hit a lot harder is that three automakers that we know of – Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler – have installed automatic engine shutoffs on at least some of their keyless models. Manufacturers hated NHTSA’s 2011 proposal because they thought the decibel level for the audible alert that would be required was too loud. Automakers are loathe to implement features that annoy their customers – it’s a thread of concern that continues to show up. That’s why an automatic engine shut-off, set for a reasonable length of time is a good engineered solution. The software fix is inexpensive modern vehicles contain all the required hardware to make this happen.  

In 2011, the agency rejected the possibility of such a regulation, arguing that they couldn’t pick an interval after which the vehicle would automatically shut down. But maybe it’s time to re-think that. Or maybe the agency will follow a time-honored tradition and wait long enough for 90 percent of the industry to do it voluntarily, and then publish a new Final Rule.

King is slated to replace former NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, who resigned nearly 16 months ago, after two years at the agency’s helm. While there, he garnered a reputation as the most aggressive enforcement chief since Joan Claybrook in the 1970s. Under Rosekind, the agency racked up record civil penalties, and took over administering the massive Takata inflator defect recalls.

Yet, Rosekind left a raft of unfinished items, prompting Blumenthal and Sen. Ed Markey (D Mass.) to ask King about the status of 10 Congressionally mandated rulemakings on issues ranging from motorcoach safety to side impact tests for children’s car seats.

President Donald Trump appointed King as Deputy Administrator in October, and she has been acting as interim head of the agency since. An economist and research scientist, King returned to government service after a three year stint as Global Director of Environmental Health and Safety Risk for GE Capital. King also worked as a Regulatory Policy Analyst for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1998 to 2000 and from 2007 to 2011, under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. She was the Chief Economist for U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011 to 2013.

Some in industry are prepared to welcome her. At a recent tire industry conference, Tracey Norberg, of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association praised King, noting her “experience with economics and science. When they brief her, she asks tough questions,” Norberg said. “It will be good to make sure there are policies that benefit industry move forward.”



Is Goodyear Headed for NHTSA Sanctions?

Six years after Goodyear’s efforts to conceal the defects of its G159 truck tire enraged a U.S. District Court judge, NHTSA appears ready to take its own bite out of the tiremaker’s hide.

To close out 2017, the agency opened a Preliminary Evaluation into the field performance of the tire, based on claim and complaint data obtained via “a court order authorizing the release of Goodyear records to NHTSA.”

As loyal readers of this blog know, that case is Haeger v. Goodyear, one that we’ve written about in our decade of coverage on the G159s trail of destruction. (See links below to The Safety Record’s G159 coverage.) 

In June 2003, LeRoy and Donna Haeger, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Barry and Suzanne Haeger, of Tucson, Arizona were on their way to a medical symposium in New Mexico, when the right front tire – a G159 275/70R.22.5 – on their Spartan Gulfstream Class A motorhome, suffered a catastrophic tread separation. The steer axle failure caused the motorhome to become uncontrollable and it careened off Interstate 25 and down an embankment, where it came to rest on its side. Barry Haeger escaped with minor injuries. But his parents and wife were all pinned under parts of the collapsed motorhome and all suffered major injuries that included multiple fractures, head trauma and nerve damage.

The case, filed in Arizona U.S. District Court in 2005, morphed for more than a decade from a mere product liability case to an indictment of the G159 tire on a motorhome, and of Goodyear’s sleaze-ball trial tactics. (For an easy-to-follow outline of the case, read our Haeger v. Goodyear Timeline.)

At the heart of the controversy was a titanic discovery battle that resulted in fraud charges, career-ending attorney sanctions, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, multiple settlements, and it rages on, still.  In the meantime, LeRoy died of cancer in 2008, still blamed by Goodyear for the crash. Donna Haeger is now in her 80s, and Suzanne Haeger still struggles with partial use of one arm, a permanent injury from the crash. All of the survivors are still coping with the stress of prolonged litigation.

What got NHTSA’s interest was a Moby-Dick of a fact that the Haeger’s attorney, David L. Kurtz sought for 12 years, as relentlessly as Captain Ahab hunting a whale: The failure rate of the G159 on motorhomes. It turns out to be phenomenally high.

Kurtz represented the Haegers in two actions against Goodyear. The first was a civil liability lawsuit filed in U. S. District Court in 2005 and settled confidentially in 2010 without any disclosure of significant Goodyear documents, even though Kurtz suspected that Goodyear had been less than forthcoming. The second lawsuit, filed in Arizona Superior Court in 2013 and, again, confidentially settled in 2017, alleged fraud. In June 2010, Kurtz learned through a Safety Record Blog story that Goodyear had disclosed internal heat and speed tests performed on the G159 in Florida case, Schalmo v. Goodyear  (See Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged into the Public Eye). Armed with that knowledge, Kurtz began to pry the most complete record of G159 failures ever seen outside of Goodyear’s General Counsel office.

By January 2017, Kurtz had forced Goodyear to disclose all of the liability lawsuits: 41, from 1999 to 2010; all of the deaths and injuries: estimated to be 98; all of the property damage claims: more than 600; and all of the warranty adjustments: 3,484. The last piece of the equation – how many out of the 160,000 G159s produced were placed on motorhomes – came a year ago.

In 2006, Goodyear submitted information about the G159 to NHTSA as part of an investigation into Toyo tires. The agency opened Engineering Analysis 05-011 in July 2005 to probe front tire failures in 1995-2000 Country Coach Allure and Intrigue Class A motor homes equipped with Toyo s 275/70R22.5, 275/80R22.S or 12R22.5 (load range H) tires. The Office of Defects Investigation sent peer information requests to Michelin, Goodyear and General Tire in search of a basis of comparison. The agency told Goodyear that it was trying to determine the approximate “failure rates” due to tire blow-out, tread separation, abrupt loss of air, and the like, for front tires manufactured and sold by Goodyear and installed on Class A RVs; and on other vehicle applications.

Hmm. What are the odds that Goodyear gave the agency complete information?

The agency also asked for the number of tires in the specified size or size ranges that Goodyear sold each year since 2000.

All of the peer responses were deemed confidential, so it took Kurtz a while to get Goodyear’s response – through NHTSA via a court order. With this information, Kurtz was able to estimate that only a quarter of the total universe of G159s sold to the motor home market between 1996-2003. With a denominator of 40,000 and a numerator of at least 600 publicly disclosed property damage claims, according to Kurtz, the parts per million failure rate – as typically expressed – of the G159 is somewhere around 15,000 Goodyear representatives have testified that a typical ppm is 3.4 ppm, so a ppm of 15,000 would be beyond extraordinary.

(Only NHTSA or the courts can reveal the data that will bring decision to the calculation. One thing is clear, the rate will be off the charts.)

A Brief History of the G159

Goodyear began producing the G159 in 1996, the design was intended for use on delivery trucks, predominantly traveling on in-town roads making frequent stops. But the tire was also marketed to the motorhome market, because like a delivery truck, Class A motorhomes had six tires and a similar weight capacity. But the reasons behind the dual-market decision are murky, because Goodyear engineers knew from internal testing soon after the tire was offered for sale that the G159 could not withstand the prolonged heat build-up of long-distance highway driving common to RV users.

Goodyear performed at least 26 tests on the G159: crown durability tests, bead durability tests, heat rise tests and DOT endurance tests – most of which were conducted after tire was put on the market. For example, four of the heat rise tests were conducted in April 1996 to “determine the dynamic heat build-up at specific loads, speeds, and inflations.” The tests were conducted on a “67.23 [inch] diameter flywheel.” at 35 miles per hour to simulate highway speed on a road surface and checking the temperature of the tire at certain intervals.

The G159 was developed to withstand temperatures of only 194° F. But testing showed that prolonged use at highway speed could cause the tire to reach temperatures of up to 229˚F, causing a loss of strength in the material components and eventually separation of the tire's structure.

The problems began to appear in the field, almost as soon Class A motorhomes were outfitted with G159 tires. Between 1996 and 1998, RV owners filed 25 tire failure claims Nonetheless, in 1998, as many states raised their highway speed limits to 75 mph, Goodyear raised the G159’s speed rating to keep pace.

In 1999, Goodyear implemented design and compound changes to make the tire more heat-resistant and less prone to tread separations. But this did not stop the flood of failures. Claims rose steadily from 54 in 1999, to 59 in 2000. By the end of 2005, Goodyear had fielded 540 death, injury and property damage tire failure claims, and faced 29 lawsuits.

The constant tread separations forced two motorhome recalls and one customer satisfaction campaign to replace G159s with more robust tires made by other manufacturers.

The tiremaker never told Goodyear about the results of its heat rise test data nor of the tire’s limitations, instead it erroneously advised one of its OEM customers, Fleetwood RV, that “running hotter can take its toll on rubber, and asserted that the average temperature at the belt edge was 160 F at 55 mph, and increased to 185 F at 75 mph.” In November 1998, Goodyear attempted to shift the blame for failure on drivers overloading and underinflating their tires, driving too fast and failing to avoid road hazards. In a letter to Fleetwood, which ultimately tallied 41 tread separations on a G159, Goodyear wrote:

“Fatigue and separation are somewhat allied properties of tire endurance. Both can be adversely affected by excessive conditions of load, deflection, inflation and speed. All of these conditions relate to heat buildup, and heat is the greatest enemy of a tire. Excessive heat will cause a degradation of material properties which in turn can impact the tire's endurance and durability. Tires are designed to perform at specific operating temperatures, which is sometimes called 'equilibrium temperature.' At equilibrium the heat generated within the tire structure is equal to the heat dissipated from the tire surfaces. Exceeding this temperature for short periods of time is not a problem but    exceeding it for long periods begins to cause loss of strength in the material components and eventually separation of the tires structure.”

When Fleetwood questioned whether construction changes in the G159 or the tire’s increased speed rating would account for all of the tread separations, Goodyear wrote:

“A question was raised relative to the possibility of 75 MPH compromising the tire's safety margin. Goodyear evaluates the test results and then determines whether to authorize 75 MPH or keep the tire at 65 MPH. To date if a tire did not meet our standards, the tire remained at a maximum speed rating of 65 MPH. In the case of the tire in question, the tire performed to the level that satisfied our high speed requirements and we approved the tire to 75 MPH.”

In June 1999, Fleetwood recalled 17 Class A American Heritage motorhomes because of inadequate total front tire weight capacity. The company replaced the G159s with a larger Michelin XZA 275/80R22.5. On October 1, 1999, Fleetwood again recalled its 275/70R22.5 Goodyear G159 tires, this time on some 3,400 Class A models made in 1996 to 2000 after four incidents involving two fatalities. The crashes Fleetwood reported to NHTSA occurred on September 15, 1998; July 7, August 29 and September 9, 1999.

According to pleadings in the Haeger case, the Monaco Corporation – another G159 OEM – received a similar set of explanations for the rash of tread separations its customers were experiencing (a total of 93) in August 2000. The failures eventually forced Goodyear to release a Product Service Bulletin announcing that the Monaco Coach Corporation would be issuing a letter to owners of 1999, 2000 and certain 2001 Windsor model Class-A motor homes offering to replace their G159 275/70R22.5 tires with 295/80R22.5 LR H, G391 tires.

Again, Goodyear blamed consumers:

“The letter will inform the customer that it has come to Monaco’s attention that in a number of instances, it was found that tire air pressure was being reduced in order to gain better ride comfort and in doing so tires were operated in an under-inflated and overloaded condition,” the Goodyear bulletin said. “In the interest of customer satisfaction, Goodyear and Monaco are offering to replace the original 275/70R22.5 LR H, G159 with 295/80R22.5 LR H G391 tires. The higher aspect ratio tire will allow customers to operate at a lower inflation pressure that will give a more comfortable ride while maintaining tire loading that is within the operating range of the tire.”

By the first month of 2003, Goodyear stopped making the G159. But they continued to fail on motorhomes, accruing deaths and serious injuries.

Defending the G159

Goodyear’s main line of defense from Day One has been concealment, because the tests showing the G159’s unsuitability for motorhome applications and the huge number of tire failures made any other strategy untenable. During its period of manufacture, it failed to inform its OEM customers of the tire’s limitations. The Safety Record doubts Goodyear has been honest with NHTSA. But it has been in the courtroom where Goodyear did everything it could to keep the real story of the G159 under wraps.

Consider the fate of the deposition of Kim Cox – a Goodyear claims administrator who testified in Phillips v. Goodyear, a 2002 injury and property damage case in San Diego.

During Cox’s June 19, 2003 deposition, Cox, allegedly admitted that Goodyear knew that the G159 tire did not “perform properly” on Class A motor homes.”  The admission was so damning, Goodyear’s attorneys swiftly shut down the deposition, negotiated a settlement and arranged for every scrap of the deposition’s existence to be destroyed. Goodyear even unsuccessfully sought sanctions against the Phillips attorney Guy Ricciardulli for even mentioning its existence to another attorney who had a G159 case in Arizona. (see Goodyear Destroys Testimony Admitting RV Tire is Defective; Court Rules Deposition is Not Protected)

Harold and Georg-Anne Phillips made their initial complaint in August 2000, when two of the tires on the left rear side of their Monaco Windsor motor home failed, damaging the rear of the vehicle. Goodyear reimbursed the couple for the cost of replacement tires and for repairs to the motor home. But a year and a half later, the Phillips’ were again the victims of a tread separation crash. While traveling on Interstate 10 in Arizona, the motor home's left front tire failed, causing the Phillips to crash into a roadside embankment resulting in serious injuries and property damage.

Consider the trail of sanctions and frustrated judges who have dinged Goodyear for discovery abuses in at least seven cases involving the G159 and other tires.

Now consider the current NHTSA investigation – extremely late though it may be. Despite Goodyear’s Herculean obfuscations, a pretty good record of this crappy motorhome tire – which, by the way, an internet search shows that you can still buy – has accrued, even though much of the raw source material remains out of the public eye.

How are things likely to go?  

A G159 sells for upwards of $350 – so times 40,000 – that’s roughly $14 million in sales to the motorhome market. We know the Schalmos won a $5.6 million verdict against Goodyear. Now we’re down to $8.4 million. How much did Goodyear pay its National Coordinating Council, Basil Musnuff, and all of the lawyers who carried their water in local jurisdictions in 41 civil actions, or running things up the judicial chain? How much did Goodyear pay out in secret settlements? Warranty losses? How much will it ultimately owe for the Judge Silver’s sanctions in the Haeger case? How much will it pay in the forthcoming federal Consent Agreement?

The Safety Record doesn’t know. But we can guess that the numbers long ago wiped any profit Goodyear made from a boneheaded decision made in 1996 that left so much human damage in its wake.


The Safety Record Blog has been writing about motorhome tire failures, the G159 tire and Goodyear’s vicious trial tactics for more than 12 years. If you would like to get caught up, grab a beer, pull up a chair, and take a read:

August 2006 Persistent RV Tire Problems Prompt Fifth Recall; NHTSA Investigation Focuses New Attention on RV Safety

April 2008 Goodyear Destroys Testimony Admitting G159 RV Tire is Defective; Court Rules Deposition is Public

June 2010 Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged into the Public Eye

Nov. 2012 Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear

June 2013 The Wages of Fraud

Sept. 2013 Haeger High-Stakes Poker

June 2014 Litigating the Goodyear Way

June 2015 Federal Appeals Court Upholds Goodyear Sanctions




Ford Asks for Takata Recall Pass

On July 10, 2017, Takata recalled PSDI-5 driver air bag inflators containing phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate (PSAN) as a generant and calcium sulfate as a desiccant, which were used in vehicles sold in the United States as original equipment in frontal driver airbag modules. Recall 17E034 affected 2.7 million Ford, Mazda and Nissan vehicles produced between 2005 and 2012.

Takata’s accompanying chronology in its Part 573 Notice of Defect and Noncompliance describes a field recovery program conducted with Nissan and Ford at NHTSA’s request between March 2016 and June 2017, to gather inflators and subject them to a variety of tests. These included live dissections, chemical and dimensional propellant analysis and ballistic testing. Takata reported to the agency that the field-returned inflators had zero ruptures in ballistic test deployments, but that “some within the population analyzed show a pattern of propellant density reduction over time that is understood to predict a future risk of inflator rupture.” It also allowed that “inflator design and vehicle environment differences between the Nissan and Ford inflators/vehicles may influence their aging characteristics.” (Emphasis added.)

Nonetheless, Takata determined, “out of an abundance of caution,” to recall its first-generation PSDI-5 PSAN driver air bag inflators containing calcium sulfate. In notifying NHTSA of a defect and announcing a recall, Takata acknowledged that these inflators represent an unacceptable risk.

Nissan responded by recovering 895 inflators from the field for testing, and acquiescing to the recall without complaint. Ford responded by collecting only 400 inflators from the field, and filing a petition asking NHTSA to declare the affected Takata inflators in its vehicles to be an inconsequential risk to safety. At the same time, Ford requested that NHTSA delay a decision on its petition until the automaker can conduct more testing. Got it? Ford asked NHTSA to declare the inflators in its vehicles safe, but not until Ford does more testing to prove it.

Safety Research & Strategies has submitted comments objecting to Ford’s petition and urging NHTSA to reject it. You can read them here. [Docket No. NHTSA–2017–0093; Notice 1]

Ford argued that 360 live dissections of Ford vehicle inflators demonstrated “consistent inflator output performance — specifically, measurements of ignition tablet discoloration, generate density, and moisture content of certain inflator constituents did not indicate a reduction-in-density trend.”  Ford also maintained that the inflators in its 2006-2007 Ford Rangers were in no danger of failing because it had taken unique steps to prevent  “potential” exposure to moisture: “the inflators contain only two, foil-wrapped auto-ignition tablets (instead of three that are not foil-wrapped), contain divider disk foil tape, and utilize certain EPDM generate cushion material (instead of ceramic) that “reduces generate movement over time, maintains generate integrity, and leads to consistent and predictable burn rates.”

There are so many things wrong with this ask and Ford’s argument, it’s hard to know where to begin, so we’ll start here: First, It has already been established that, with or without drying agents, PSAN is too volatile of a generant – period. PSAN must be used with extraordinary precision and care, or it is likely to over-pressurize, especially when exposed to temperature cycling and moisture. And we know from everything that has been publicly revealed so far that Takata had pretty bad manufacturing processes and lax quality control.

PSAN is the underlying root cause of the ruptures. Takata has affirmed this in a variety of patents filed over two decades. A study, conducted at the behest of Takata and Honda by researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s High Pressure Combustion Laboratory also showed, over Takata’s protests, that PSAN is susceptible to dynamic burning. That means that when the propellant is exposed to sudden pressure increases, it may burn at a much faster rate and at higher temperatures than expected, leading to over-pressurization.

Second, calcium sulfate, used extensively as a commercial desiccant in laboratory use, does not provide any guarantees that the inflator won’t eventually rupture. Manufacturers like it because it’s cheap, stable non-toxic and non-corrosive, but it only adsorbs 10 percent of its weight in water vapor.

Third, we suppose that it’s fine and dandy to reduce the ingress of moisture that can create porosity in the wafers of generant. If that was the only mechanism of failure, Ford might have made a decent argument. Only, it seems that Ford is putting as much effort into keeping up with the science of inflator ruptures as it has been in recovering inflators from the field. Technical experts that served as consultants to NHTSA and Takata agreed moisture intrusion is of lesser importance in inflator ruptures than temperature cycling.

For example, the Exponent report, Investigation of Takata Inflator Ruptures, emphasizes the role of thermal cycling in failure scenarios: “However, even in hot and dry environments like Arizona, the large daily temperature cycles in the absence of significant moisture ingress can also cause propellant degradation over a prolonged period. High moisture content alone in the absence of temperature cycling will not increase degradation.”

NHTSA consultant Fraunhofer ICT and Takata also acknowledged that variances among vehicle types are determinants in whether or how significantly an airbag inflator will deteriorate due to temperature cycling, stating:

“One of the key observations in the analysis of the field return data is that there exists a strong dependence on outcome based on the vehicle in which the inflator was installed. Limited vehicles studies conducted by Takata show variation in inflator surface temperatures between different vehicle types and models, given identical environmental exposure conditions. This temperature variation appears to have some correlation with different field performance of those models, as shown in Figure 19 below. This is not to say that the vehicle is the cause of the issue- only that the vehicle type may influence the rate that the inflator degrades.”

Finally, the death of Joel Knight is a warning about the price of recall delays.

On December 22, 2015, Knight, 52, of Kershaw County South Carolina, was fatally injured in an otherwise survivable and moderate crash when a defective airbag ruptured in his 2006 Ford Ranger.  Knight’s vehicle struck a cow that wandered into the road; the airbag inflator exploded during deployment, causing a piece of metal shrapnel to pierce his neck and spine.

Knight’s death was unwarranted and preventable – this defective Takata airbag inflator type, the Smokeless Driver Inflator or SDI, had already been recalled in 2014 in at least 61 other countries by Honda and Toyota. Those recalls were initiated following ruptures that took the life of at least one other driver – a pregnant woman in Malaysia.  

From June 2014 to May 2015, however, Ford dithered – and never actually recalled the SDI inflators in all of its vehicles.

The automaker issued its first Takata-related campaign as a voluntary field service action for a select group of vehicles in certain model years, which included Ford Rangers.  After July 2014, when a rupture caused by a failed SDI inflator (the very same used in Knight’s 2006 Ranger) killed a pregnant woman in Malaysia, NHTSA requested that Ford replace driver side airbag inflators in Ranger vehicles. Ford launched another regional field service campaign in November 2014 to replace driver side frontal air bag inflators in the 2004-2005 Ford Ranger vehicles.  The action was still limited to Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, despite other manufacturers expanding the affected regions, and still, inexplicably, did not include the 2006 Ranger.

In May 2015, Ford finally converted its regional recall for passenger inflators into a nationwide recall after Takata issued a recall requesting such an action, but never converted its recall of SDI inflators from the limited regional recall into a nationwide recall, nor did it recall the 2006 Ranger with the same SDI.

Knight’s death was partly the impetus for a Takata airbag inflator recall of about 5 million vehicles, which would have included the 2006 Ford Ranger. The family of Joel Knight has publicly stated his death would have been prevented if Ford had launched a timely recall. 

We agree.

As other manufacturers have acknowledged to their customers the dangers of defective Takata airbag inflators and have begun to move more actively to recall these components, Ford continues to demonstrate its apathy. It continues to install the same non-desiccated Takata inflators that are the subject of the massive recalls in what NHTSA has dubbed” like-for-like” inflators – which very few other manufacturers are using. In the three years since NHTSA first ordered manufacturers to treat this defect as an urgent public safety issue, almost all manufacturers have procured either desiccated inflators or inflators from other suppliers. Ford sought extensions, telling the Agency that three years was not enough for it to find a safe alternative in sufficient numbers to meet the demand. Owners of these vehicles will have to go into the shop again in early 2020 for another replacement, which could lead to reduced completion rates because owners are frustrated or feel the interim remedy is safe enough.  

Astoundingly, Ford is still telling its customers that the inflators are safe, while Honda has (finally) mounted a full-court press to capture defective inflators – including a door-to-door effort to recovery a particularly dangerous subset of airbags. In contrast, Ford’s webpage entitled, “Frequently Asked Questions regarding Takata Airbag Inflator Recalls,” puts out this bull in response to a query about whether vehicles with recalled Takata airbags are safe to drive:

"Based on currently available technical data, Ford Motor Company understands that the vehicles involved in the recent Takata recall are safe to drive while you are waiting for replacement parts. You should have the repair completed as soon as possible after you are notified that parts are available.”

Ford’s got nerve – we’ll give them that. But one thing they shouldn’t be given is permission to forego the recall. NHTSA should not let Ford play Rupture Roulette with its customers.

CO and Cars: Unfinished Business

In 1975, the auto industry began to equip vehicles with catalytic converters to meet the emission limits of the Clean Air Act of 1970. Sitting unobtrusively between the engine and the muffler, the “cat” changes the noxious gases in automobile exhaust into harmless nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water. The result, according to the National Institutes of Occupational Health, was an 80 percent decline in the number of unintentional vehicle-related deaths caused by the most dangerous byproduct of combustion engines: carbon monoxide. 

But catalytic converters don’t entirely eliminate the CO, so their advent did not eliminate motor vehicle CO poisonings. This lingering safety issue resurfaced in 2009, when keyless ignition systems severed drivers from their relationship with traditional metal keys, making it easy to inadvertently leave their vehicle engines quietly running while CO levels built inside the garage – and then the house. Motor vehicle carbon monoxide poisonings became newsworthy again in 2017, when numerous police departments with fleets of newish Ford Explorer Interceptors (a police version of the Explorer) began to complain that their officers were being sickened in their squad cars. Just last week, WRC, NBC’s Washington D.C. affiliate, broadcast a story showing that the problem affects civilian Explorers, too. The story featured two owners who suffered from the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.  

The truth is: carbon monoxide continues to kill hundreds and sicken thousands of people in the U.S. each year. 

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless toxic gas produced as a by-product of incomplete combustion of carbon-based substances.  It is the most common lethal poison worldwide. When inhaled, CO is absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream. CO binds with hemoglobin with an affinity of more than 200 times that of oxygen, forming a tight complex with hemoglobin, which impairs the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood. 

How many CO injuries and deaths are caused by motor vehicle exhaust is up for debate, because the data are hard to come by. In 2000, NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis updated a 1996 study estimating the number of deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning by motor vehicle exhaust. It found that from 1995 to 1997, the total number of fatalities due to CO poisoning was 3,715, with the majority of those fatalities involving stationary motor vehicles; 665 of those fatalities were accidental. A 2002 analysis of U.S. motor vehicle CO deaths from 1968 to 1998 estimated that annual accidental CO deaths from all sources decreased from 1,417 in 1968 to 491 in 1998, with 48 percent of the 1998 deaths attributed to motor vehicles. 

Establishing a link between CO deaths and motor vehicle exhaust using the Centers for Disease Control’s WONDER database, an open access online search system using mortality data drawn from all filed and coded U.S. death certificates, has been stymied by a change in coding practices. In 1999, the International Classification of Diseases coding system dropped the identification of CO sources. 

Nonetheless, a 2004 NHTSA study on non-traffic, non-crash motor vehicle fatalities found “somewhere between 200 and 250 deaths a year that are not known to be suicides result from vehicle-generated carbon monoxide. These types of deaths occur more frequently than deaths from any of the other issues researched.” 

A more recent 2011 study of data gathered from news stories about residential CO poisoning in the United States published between March 2007 and September 2009 found 837 reported CO poisoning incidents, 59 of which were the result of a vehicle left running in the garage. The author, Dr. Neil Hampson, who has published extensively on the epidemiology of CO poisoning,  concluded that household CO poisoning from a motor vehicle left running in the garage “is relatively common.” 

The annual number of CO injuries in a much harder figure to ascertain. In 2011 the CDC, using data from the National Poison Data System (NPDS) to characterize reported unintentional, non- fire-related CO exposures, found 68,316 CO exposures reported to poison centers during 2000-2009. 

Translating exposures to injuries is tricky. The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are nonspecific and vary widely – anything from headaches to fatigue to dizziness and vomiting. Severe exposure can lead to confusion, loss of consciousness, seizure and cognitive difficulties.  Almost half of the people exposed to CO develop delayed neuropsychological responses that can be disabling and sometimes permanent. These effects can develop days or weeks after exposure. 

Petitioning for a Solution

Squishy data hasn’t stopped citizen advocates from asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require countermeasures to either warn occupants of the presence of CO in the occupant compartment, shut off the engine when it reaches pre-determined levels, or both. Since 1997, there have been three petitions for rulemaking.

In March 1997, Herb Denenberg, an attorney, former professor, journalist and consumer advocate, petitioned the agency to require carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in all motor vehicles, to mandate manufacturers to offer them as optional equipment and to alert consumers in owner’s manuals to the availability and value of installing a carbon monoxide detector.  Denenberg also requested that NHTSA issue press releases and consumer advisories regarding the availability of carbon monoxide detectors. Denenberg cited a December 1993 NHTSA Consumer Advisory showing 353 fatalities that year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. His petition asserted that these were preventable deaths, and that manufacturers could install CO detectors in vehicles for about $16 per unit.

Eight years later, toxicologist Albert Donnay, representing a non-profit that  focuses on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity disorders, filed a petition for rulemaking making similar requests: press releases on the dangers of vehicle carbon monoxide poisoning, more research on all CO vehicle-related fatalities, a requirement that manufacturers warn occupants about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in owner’s manuals and install CO detectors in new vehicles, with the capability to cut-off the engine when carbon monoxide levels inside a stationary vehicle exceed a concentration of 200 parts per million.

In his petition, Donnay argued that there was ample evidence that the agency considered motor-vehicle CO poisoning a serious problem, but had abandoned the issue, failing to continue its research, or do more consumer education on the issue, or initiate rulemaking – even though the agency had influenced recalls related to CO exposure and had promulgated rules to address serious, but occasional problems, such as trunk entrapment.

The most recent petition was filed in March 2016 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Like its predecessors, PEER requested that the agency issue annual consumer advisories and recommend the use of onboard digital CO monitors; to track and report all CO-related fatalities; require manufactures to include information in new vehicle owner’s manuals about the health dangers of CO, and require all manufacturers to install CO detectors in the passenger compartment of all new motor vehicles; and require manufacturers to install engine shut-off technology. 

PEER echoed Donnay’s point about NHTSA’s failure to prevent continuing CO deaths:

Since NHTSA was first informed of the life-saving potential of CO detectors linked to engine cut-off switches, in excess of 20,000 North Americans have died needlessly from vehicular CO poisoning. At the same time, these CO detectors are reliable and very inexpensive. They are far less expensive than other measures that NHTSA has approved. In short, requiring these devices may one of the most significant and cost-effective vehicle safety measures since the seat belt.

NHTSA Wants Nothing to Do With It

The agency’s response to motor-vehicle CO poisoning issue has been, to put it charitably, contradictory. 

(Remember – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was the prime mover behind the widespread implementation of catalytic converters – not NHTSA. Prior to the addition of catalytic converters, “CO in motor-vehicle exhaust accounted for the most poisoning deaths in the United States caused by a single agent,” according to a 1996 CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Out of 11,547 unintentional CO deaths during 1979-1988, 57 percent were caused by motor-vehicle exhaust; of these, 83 percent were associated with stationary vehicles.” Most of the deaths in garages occurred with the garage doors or windows open.) 

NHTSA has long regarded an unattended vehicle with the keys left in the ignition to be a safety hazard. In 1967, the impetus was auto theft, leading to police chases that often ended in fatal crashes. The agency’s first proposal for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 would have required cars to be equipped with devices to remind drivers to remove keys when leaving their vehicle. And the agency made it pretty clear that the solution should be based in vehicle engineering: 

It is, of course, the operator's responsibility to remove the key when the car is left unattended, and drivers should continue to be exhorted to take this elementary precaution. Nevertheless, many do not, and the interest of safety would be promoted by the existence of a visible or audible warning device on the car, reminding the driver when he has neglected his responsibility. This is an instance in which engineering of vehicles is more likely to have an immediate beneficial impact than a long-range process of mass education.

But, NHTSA has resisted regulating in any way an unattended vehicle with the keys left in the ignition and the engine running.

In the early 1990s, the agency appeared to have some interest, contracting the Carnegie Mellon Research Institute to evaluate its metal oxide semiconductor gas sensor technology for application as a low-cost carbon monoxide monitor in the automobile compartment. The study cited 500 accidental deaths each year, and, like the petitions that would follow it, observed that many “might have been prevented if the automobile passenger compartment were equipped with an appropriate CO monitor and alarm system.” The report concluded that the technology had was at the point “where a stable selective CO monitor is within reach,” and recommended that NHTSA undertake further research. 

But, The Safety Record couldn’t find evidence that NHTSA took this research any further. Instead, it knocked down most of the 1997 Denenberg petition, but grudgingly allowed that it might add some information about carbon monoxide poisonings to future advisories. NHTSA dismissed CO poisoning incidents as a cold weather phenomenon, most likely caused by people running their engines in an enclosed space to keep warm or failing to clear snow from the tail pipe area. “For this reason,” the agency wrote, “we do not think it is justifiable to require that all vehicles be equipped with these detectors. A large portion of the vehicles sold in this country will rarely, if ever, be driven in cold weather.” Besides, the agency said, mandatory installation of carbon monoxide detectors industry wide would cost at least $240 million, eventually consumers would be forced to replace them after six years. And, since the problem really affected the older models in the fleet, a regulation would not benefit the vehicles that needed it most.

In 2005, it denied the Donnay petition, claiming the data showed that the number of CO incidents was falling absent any regulation and because a mandate for in-vehicle carbon monoxide detectors would fail to address more than 70 percent of vehicle-related carbon monoxide deaths, because the victims are outside the vehicle. NHTSA argued that “a home CO detector would be substantially more effective than a vehicle CO detector at preventing these deaths because 92% of the fatalities occurred at the home.” The agency rejected the idea of an engine shut-off that would prevent CO accumulating to dangerous levels because it “could prove to be a hazard. For example, in a tunnel with congested traffic, the concentration of CO may cause the device to shut off the engine, resulting in further traffic congestion or even possible crashes.”

The agency hasn’t yet articulated a position on the PEER petition.

In 2011, for the first time the agency considered the unattended key-in-vehicle scenarios with the engine running, and the problem of CO poisoning. A FMVSS 114 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – as yet unfinalized – attempted to deal with the proliferation of keyless ignition systems. The NPRM recognized that current keyless ignition systems had led to driver confusion, and that these designs allowed drivers to exit the vehicle without the transmission locked in Park, and sometimes without actually turning off the engine. The NPRM noted that the lack of standardization in combination with the lack of visual and tactile cues about the status of the vehicle engine has set the stage for the real world incidents in which drivers, mistaking the fob for the key, inadvertently leave a vehicle running and/or exit the vehicle without putting the transmission into “Park.” The proposal specifically deleted the door opening alert exclusion currently in FMVSS No. 114 for a running vehicle, but only for vehicles equipped with keyless ignition. The agency’s strategy for addressing the rollaway and carbon monoxide safety issues are for internal and external audible alerts, based on the Platform Lift standard, which is part of FMVSS 403.  

As part of the rulemaking, NHTSA said that it had considered “a requirement for an automatic shut-off feature applied to vehicles fitted with electronic key code systems.” But, it declined to propose such a feature because: “We have been unable to conclude that there is a specified period of time after which the propulsion system should be shut down to effectively address various scenarios mentioned in VOQs submitted to the agency.”

What, no mention of the simultaneous-shut-offs-in-a-tunnel scenario?

Motor Vehicle CO as a Function of Vehicle Design and Wear

In 1972, research sponsored by the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety noted that the available data suggested “that over 500 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning because their vehicles are defective due to deterioration, damage, or poor automotive design.”

That last bit is still the case, and the Ford Explorers currently sickening lots of people are good examples. In July 2016, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened a probe into reports of occupants smelling exhaust odors in the occupant compartments of 2011-2015 Explorers. By the time it bumped the probe up to an Engineering Analysis, a year later, Ford had tallied 2,051 complaints, while NHTSA’s Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire hotline received 791. The high-profile victims were police departments across the country, which were reporting that at least five officers lost consciousness, were hospitalized for CO exposure or crashed their SUVs, poisoned by the cabin air of their Interceptors.  You can read more about it here

Ford, which does a booming business with the law enforcement market, rushed to investigate the CO problem in those vehicles, and promised to cover the costs of any modifications. The automaker blamed the problem on unsealed spaces and wiring holes drilled in the course of implementing after-market features specific to police work, such as emergency lights and radios, and said that none of those problems affect civilian Explorers.

So why are so many Explorer owners complaining? In its August 2016 response to NHTSA’s Information Request, Ford argued that really not that many people complained. An analysis showed that “approximately 0.29 percent of all 2011 through 2015 model year Explorer owners have complained of some sort of exhaust odor in their vehicle,” and even if Ford included all of the ambiguous reports the percentage is still a piddling 0.38 percent of all vehicle owners. 

As for the cause, Ford isolated it to the unique combination of driving at “wide open throttle (WOT) events with the vehicles climate control system in the recirculation mode.” Ford said that “the fuel enrichment used for the exhaust catalyst protection strategy commonly used during wide open throttle events caused a more detectable odor being emitted from the tailpipe. Second, a negative cabin pressure was created from the vehicle climate control system being in recirculation mode. Ford notes that the vehicle drive cycle necessary to reproduce this condition is beyond what Ford would consider normal or typical customer usage.” In any event, the CO readings never topped 8 parts per million (ppm), and dissipated within 10 seconds. 

This does not seem to comport with real-world incidents. In preparing the WRC story, reporter Susan Hogan teamed up with toxicologist Albert Donnay, who measured the presence of CO in the occupant compartment of an Explorer whose owner had been complaining to Ford for months. Donnay gathered readings of CO with sophisticated detectors in the front and back seat. At low speeds, with the vehicle in re-circulation mode, there was no change in air quality, the report said. When the vehicle speed climbed to over 40 miles per hour, the CO level was 9 parts per million (ppm) in the front and 30 ppm in the back. You can read it here

Further, Hogan says that Donnay’s testing showed that the CO levels evened out at 15 ppm-17 ppm and stayed there for a good 10-15 minutes. The levels didn’t drop until they brought fresh air into the cabin.  

Another good example is General Motors’ 2015 “emission recall involving certain 2008 Chevrolet Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban, and Tahoe; and GMC Sierra, Yukon, and Yukon XL vehicles equipped with California Bin 4 emissions RPO NU5.” GM said that “the design of the fuel control system did not adequately control carbon monoxide emissions under certain operating conditions.” The remedy was a reflashing of the engine control module with a modified fuel control calibration.

Combatting Motor Vehicle Carbon Monoxide at the Source

There are several design solutions to the motor vehicle carbon monoxide problem, and for nearly forty years, individual inventors, suppliers such as Lear Corporation, and automakers have put forward ideas or implemented them. There are patents, dating back to at least as early as 1974, related to carbon monoxide detectors in motor vehicles that either warn the driver when the in-board air reaches a certain threshold and/or shut off the engine. 

Automakers have been using engine cut-off designs as a safeguard to remote start features for at least a decade. Two automakers have also added extended engine idle shut-offs to their keyless vehicles to prevent CO poisonings when drivers mistakenly leave their vehicles running. In 2013 Ford became the first automaker to add an engine idle cut-off to its keyless vehicles. This feature shuts off the engine after 30 minutes if there have been no inputs from the driver.

In March 2015, General Motors remedied 50,249 2011-2013 Chevrolet Volt vehicles with a software fix that would shut off the engine after an hour and a half, to prevent drivers from inadvertently leaving the vehicle running. GM was reportedly prompted to implement the recall after two injuries and push from NHTSA. The 2014 and beyond model years already have this feature. 

Another design includes the use of air classification or control module (ACM). This technology combines CO and nitrogen dioxide sensors to protect the cabin air.  Some automakers offer ACMs on vehicles with electronic climate control. While ACMs alone do not solve the problem of accumulating CO emanating from a running vehicle, they can be paired with auto shutoff mechanisms or alarms.  In 2007, AppliedSensor, chemical sensor components and modules manufacturer, and Sensata Technologies, a developer of industrial sensors and control solutions, announced that their Air Classification Module was being integrated into the 2007 BMW X5 Sport Activity Vehicle: “This ACM prevents the intake of harmful combustion fumes – such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds: “The module includes a built-in sensor with two separate sensing elements to enable continuous detection of the presence of diesel and gasoline exhaust fumes faster and more reliably. Through integration of a corresponding module in the air intake duct of the vehicle’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC), the sensor can signal accurately timed, automatic activation of air circulation to the vehicle's controls.” 

More than 40 years after the advent of the catalytic converter, we still have a CO problem that endangers public health – and we have a menu of technologies that might all but eliminate the threat. The will to fix it seems to be the last obstacle.