Celebrating David Biss, Automotive Safety Pioneer, Advocate, and All-Around Good Guy

The automotive safety community is remembering David James Biss  as a researcher, safety advocate, a crashworthiness and occupant protection expert, whose analyses made significant contributions to outing defective designs, and a kind and gentle man. Biss passed away on Feb. 15, at age 79, of  complications from multiple myeloma.

Over a wide-ranging, half-century career, Biss furthered automotive safety in many ways, and never lost his interest in improving occupant protection. He was well-known for his seminal work in the area of seatbelts. For example, in the mid-1970s automakers added “window-shade” devices to seatbelts to reduce the webbing tension as a comfort feature, Biss authored technical papers and was a public voice in the media about these designs, which induced slack into the belt webbing, significantly reducing restraint effectiveness and resulting in serious injuries and deaths. He also a key figure in identifying the hazards of passive seatbelt designs that automakers installed as an alternative to airbags and as a means to meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s policy objectives for automatically protecting occupants.

“He was a consummate professional and the go-to expert for seat belts. Period. No doubt about it – everything—passive belts, retractors geometry of belts, the Forgotten Child,” says Robert M. N. Palmer, a Springfield, Mo. attorney and longtime colleague who retained him in more than 60 cases, and close friend. “He was on the forefront.”

In 1968, Biss earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering in 1971. In 1980, Biss also earned a B.S. in journalism at the University of Maryland.

He began his career in 1972 at the Cornell Aeronautical Lab in Buffalo, NY. In 1976, he joined NHTSA as a researcher in support of rulemaking initiatives. During his tenure at the federal agency, Biss became Technical Manager of Research Projects and Senior Physical Scientist. While at NHTSA, he conducted or oversaw numerous in-house and contracted research projects on crashworthiness, particularly in areas of occupant protection, occupant packaging, padding, structures, air cushion and belt restraints. He also analyzed crash and injury data.

In 1982, he opened his consulting practice Automotive Safety Analysis Corporation. One of his first projects involved conducting an in-depth analysis of vehicles tested in NHTSA’s NCAP  35 mph barrier test for Volvo of America Corp. Volvo was interested in understanding the interaction of structural deformation and restraint systems, and how it impacted the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants.

The following year, he worked for Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden, as a resident research engineer in their Automotive Safety Advanced Engineering group. While there, he established computer-based analytical techniques to design and evaluate the performance of automotive safety systems, including occupant restraints, and trained Volvo engineers in how to use them in the design of air cushion restraint systems. He also analyzed Volvo’s on-site library of crash test evaluation data to establish safety performance improvements, and to recommend hardware design changes to improve the performance of both existing and future car models. While in Gothenburg he formed a friendship with Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin, the inventor of the three-point belt. They remained friends until Bohlin’s death in 2002.

David Biss Observing a 1975 Volvo with Frontal Impact Airbags Post-40 mph Barrier Impact Crash Test [U.S. DOT]

“David Biss was one of the automotive safety community champions, whose accomplishments in advancing better, research-based designs over his lifetime were significant,” says Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, who worked with Biss on many defect issues. “And you can see their impact as occupant restraints evolved from devices that caused injuries and deaths to those that prevented them.”

Biss was also among three former NHTSA employees who challenged then-Administrator Diane Steed’s attempt to re-write Part 9 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which outlines the procedures governing the testimony of federal employees in legal proceedings. Steed proposed sweeping changes that would have brought former NHTSA employees under its authority and essentially precluded any testimony about NHTSA by its former employees. As Biss recalled for a story in The Safety Record (Former NHTSA Administrator Strickland Gets Part 9 Spanking), Steed wanted to shut down any former NHTSA employees challenging automakers’ preferred prima facie argument that if NHTSA approved something, or closed an investigation with no defect finding, or if a vehicle met the federal safety standard, a vehicle was therefore safe. Biss, former Administrator Joan Claybrook and safety advocate Ben Kelley, sought a declaratory judgment against the amendments, but the case was settled and the plaintiffs accepted a 1994 memo authored by former NHTSA counsel Stephen H. Kaplan which stated that ex-staffers can talk generally about the agency’s policies or specifically about issues in which they weren’t personally involved without seeking the agency’s permission, but opining on matters directly related to a former employee’s actions while on the job with the agency would require the agency’s approval.

Palmer used Biss in seven jury trials, with six plaintiffs’ victories. Biss was invaluable in advising Palmer which cases to take, and in educating him about the injuries and vehicle failures, Palmer says.

“He would constantly be sending me articles from SAE and he always insisted that I ‘kick the tin’ with him,” Palmer says. “A lot of the time, the lead lawyer doesn’t go to the vehicle inspection, but he would teach me why whatever we were looking at produced the injury or death. He made me a better lawyer.”

Biss also excelled at testifying at trial, because he could make engineering and crash dynamics understandable to the lay person. Palmer saw particular talent of Biss’s in the 1998 Dickerson case in Sugarland Texas, which involved the death of a young mother who was fatally injured in a frontal impact, while wearing a passive seatbelt. Martha Dickerson had just picked her three children up from school and was on her way home, when a drunk driver crossed the centerline and struck her vehicle head-on. While she and her children were all restrained, Martha Dickerson was only wearing the shoulder portion of the “passive” belt, which lulled occupants to believe they were fully protected, but required occupants to manually don a separate lap belt in order to prevent submarining under the shoulder strap. Everyone else walked away from the crash, including the other driver.

“I always try to debrief as many of the jurors as who will talk to me. And one juror told me that she decided the case because she thought he was the most brilliant person she had ever listened to,” he says. “I remember that distinctly. That stood out. Juries liked him. He was extremely prepared, very knowledgeable”

Biss’s work on the hazards associated with reclined seats was also pivotal in many cases that resulted in large plaintiffs’ verdicts. Palmer said Biss went to the UK, where he found Ford-authored research concluding seats should never be reclined more than 40 degrees – a direct contradiction to their position in litigation.

Biss’s litigation work was one of several significant factors pushing the industry to abandon unsafe airbag and seatbelt designs.

“We settled and got big verdicts in dozens and dozens of cases against Mazda, Ford and GM,” says Palmer. “We know that we put a lot of pressure on automakers.”

His colleagues and friends also spoke about his commitment to victims.

“David’s attention to detail brought clarity and authentication to every project, which helped many families who’ve had loved ones injured by defective products,” says Biomechanical Engineer Salena Zellers, a colleague and friend.  “Long after his work was done, he’d follow the progress of some of those he’d helped. The work David did helped bring change and improvement to automobile safety worldwide.”

Take the case of Margaret Romph – a Jefferson City, Mo. four-year-old, who was ejected from her Evenflo Express Booster seat in a January 2009 side-impact crash. Romph was secured in the booster in the right rear passenger seat, but the impact cracked the booster where it engaged the seatbelt webbing. She was thrown out of the restraint so violently, her neck and both her legs  fractured, leaving her a ventilator-dependent quadripelgic. Romph’s attorneys hired Biss to examine the restraint design and its failures.

Zellers recalls long nights and weekends working with Biss in preparation for his testimony. The case settled just before trial, but for years afterwards, Biss would visit the website, Miracles 4 Margaret, created by her mother Sherline, to follow Margaret’s progress. When she passed away in May 2019, David was “devastated,” says Zellers. “He continued to follow that child for eight years.”

Larry Wilson a mechanical engineer who specializes in crash reconstructions recalled meeting Biss around 2010, when he was testing Jeep Grand Cherokees and Ford Explorers in rear-impact crashes at the George Washington University’s FHWA/NHTSA National Crash Analysis Center with Ken Digges, the Center’s then Director of Biomechanics and Auto Safety Research, and Shaun Kildare, who studied under Digges, and is now the director of research for Advocates for Highway Safety. Wilson was interested in studying the crash pulses, Digges and Kildare in post-crash fires. Biss, who had an interest in seat failures in rear impacts, asked to join so he could to examine the crash and seat performance.

Wilson recalls Biss asking “Oh, you’re doing crash tests, can I get to just look at the seatback failure?” “That was something he was interested in. So, we were just a bunch of crash nerds getting together,” Wilson says. “He had a very keen mind, but, to me, what really stood out is just how nice of a person he was. For sure, he will be missed.”