Would new safety laws cut the toll? Ottawa is asking—and so is Detroit

GRATTAN GRAY May 14 1966


Would new safety laws cut the toll? Ottawa is asking—and so is Detroit

GRATTAN GRAY May 14 1966


Would new safety laws cut the toll? Ottawa is asking—and so is Detroit


WHICH IS MORE DANGEROUS, the car or the driver? It’s rather like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, but since Henry Ford and the Model T it’s been good politics to reply firmly, “The driver, so let's change him.” At least, it was until last year. Now, largely because of a Senate investigating committee in Washington and a determined Ottawa MP named Heward Grafftey, this shibboleth is being challenged. The North American auto, that demonstrable status symbol of a continent, is being presented as the villain in the continent’s inexorably mounting highway carnage.

Influential senators in Washington, and Grafftey in Ottawa, are saying — and being heard, what’s more — that the cars we drive are unsafe. Worse, they’re actually dangerous and kill and maim more often than they protect. In fact, says Grafftey, “death and injury on the highway could be cut more than fifty percent if safety features already tested and known were incorporated into the design of automobiles.” If he’s right — and some scientific studies suggest he is — then some three thousand of the 4,800 Canadians killed in road accidents last year were victims of killer cars.

Launching that kind of attack on the allpowerful auto industry requires a great deal of political courage. Grafftey, thirty-seven-yearold Conservative MP for Brome-Missisquoi in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, first displayed it last summer by sending Prime Minister Lester Pearson a brief outlining his “killer - cars” theories and demanding that a more rigorous safety code be imposed on auto makers. It must, however, be admitted that his efforts would have made little impact but for the coincidental involvement of influential American politicians — such men as Senators Robert Kennedy. Abraham Ribicoff, Gaylord Nelson and New York State Senator Edward Speno — in the same fight.

In a sense, these men are attacking the Great North American Way Of Life. The economic

health of Canada and the U. S. depends to an awesome degree on the auto industry. And to make us consume cars, Detroit must, and does, live by the almost sacred dictum that consumption can only be stimulated by perpetual newness and not by a promise of safer riding. And what is safety anyway?

The traditional answer is that safety means safe drivers and better highways. Many dedicated people have devoted lifetimes to vain efforts to make drivers change their lethal ways. Their failure is demonstrable in statistics suggesting that fluctuations in the death toll are due to factors other than improved driving. As New York Senator Speno says, “We haven’t yet found a way to improve the driver: and perhaps we never shall. Highways take years and cost millions to improve. But the car can be readily and easily changed, and it can be done without too much extra cost.” It sounds sensible, but by expounding the same arguments in Ottawa, Grafftey has earned the enmity of the Canadian Highway Safety Council, a body dedicated to the principle that the drivers are at fault, not the cars.

PROPONENTS OF the killer-car theory argue that the lethal thing about present car designs are such things as rigid steering wheels that may spear drivers, dashboard knobs and exposed door handles and window controls, engines that are forced back into passenger cabs on impact, roofs that crumple in crashes, and other factors that come in the “mechanical” category. Also in this class are the killers outside the car — the projecting hoods on recessed headlights, spiky chrome trim and hood ornaments that impale pedestrians who might otherwise survive accidents with bruises, or nonfatal fractures.

Grafftey and his allies point proudly to socalled safety cars already designed in the U. S. and Europe which actually protect the occupants, yet still look stylish. The two most respected of these designs are the vehicle built by Battista Pininfarina, the famed Italian designer who recently died (of natural causes), and the Safetycar project financed by the New York State government. Both feature collapsible steering columns with cushioned steering wheels; heavily padded interiors with recessed door handles and dashboard

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“Surely innocent victims of crashes should be protected”

instrument knobs: fully rounded exteriors that nudge (violently, perhaps) but do not impale pedestrians: reinforced roofs and bodies: inclined firewalls to force the engine under the car in head-on crashes: anchored bucket seats and headrests to prevent "whiplash" spinal and neck injuries: and seat belts that cross the body from shoulder to w aist, providing greater "anchorage" than the lap belts already familiar to most motorists. The Pininfarina car also has sliding doors that won’t fly open in a crash, while the New York car has conventional doors fixed with heavy-duty locks and hinges. Designers of the New' York car credit it with one hundred and twenty-six safety features. These include a pcriscopic mirror to provide simultaneous views of what's happening at the front and rear of the car: a rubber-faced, shockabsorbing bumper; a rigid barrier to separate front and rear-seat passengers and a passenger compartment sealed to keep out noxious fumes.

The fight to get such a car into production has preoccupied Grafftey and the U. S. senators for a year. Beginning with his brief to Prime Minister Pearson last year. Grafftey has ¡ been campaigning widely for public support and has spent several thousands of his own dollars to spread the word that "people shouldn't have to die. even if they are to blame for an accident. Surely innocent victims of auto crashes should be protected. Why should anyone pay with his life for making a simple error in judgment, or for being in the way when someone else makes one?”

Washington took notice

His presentation to Pearson argued that the government should impose safety standards on auto manufacturers every bit as rigid as those imposed on the aircraft and shipbuilding industries. "Cars kill forty times as many people as ships and planes combined," Grafftey claims. Thus far the government has taken no action, but Grafftey’s campaigning has impressed Senator Robert Kennedy, who heads the U. S. Senate committee currently investigating auto safety — so much that he invited Grafftey to present his arguments in public before the senate committee last April 6.

This committee’s year-long probe of the automobile industry is symbolic of a greater concern in the U. S. over highway safety than has yet been displayed by any level of government in Canada. (How'cver when the U. S. government last year stipulated that seventeen safety features be incorporated in all the vehicles it purchased. Ottawa was prompted to start work on a similar list. It has not yet been made public.)

Last year the U. S. Senate set up its committee to investigate auto safety. and in January this year publication of the book Unsafe At Any Speed, a carefully documented yet quite savage attack on Detroit’s allegedly killer-cars, gave the new safety campaign added impetus. The book was written by Ralph Nader, a Washington lawyer. In it he bitterly criti-

cizes what he calls the auto industry's adamant refusal to design and produce safer cars. Soon after the publication of Nader's book, the American Trial Lawyer's Association also published a book attacking the auto industry, using in the attack basically the same arguments.

Public reaction to these books —

Nader's made the greater impact — has been remarkable, the more so in view of the industry's constant wail that "safety won't sell." The magazine Car And Driver said recently that the industry was in a state of "shell shock" and feared that the safer-cars campaign would spawn "a case of national hysteria which might destroy the pros-

pect for record-breaking sales within the next few years.”

As a result, the industry hasn't been fighting with its critics so bitterly in recent months (though private detectives employed by General Motors admittedly probed author Ralph Nader's personal life pretty closely, and may even have attempted to manoeuvre him into a compromising situation with strange women who. he says, tried to “befriend" him). Publicly, however, the auto-industry’s leaders say they welcome this critical public attention. Ron Todgham. President of Chrysler of Canada and spokesman for the Canadian auto industry, says. “It has focused attention on a problem that has long been treated with too much complacency." Arjay Miller. president of the Ford parent company in the U. S.. says the brouhaha

Would “safety cars” bring new dangers to the highways?

stirred up by the senate investigation will actually help the industry sell safety.

And that'll be a change: the auto industry once had a maxim that went. "Ten dollars of chrome will sell more cars that one hundred dollars of safety." and safety has been a bad word in the business since 1956. when it

was Ford’s main marketing motif and seat belts were first offered as an option. Since then, auto makers have remembered 1956 as "the year Ford sold safety and Chevrolet sold cars." And this year's models are being sold with advertising that emphasizes power, speed and the excitement of motoring. Fven sedate family sedans

are currently being marketed to the public with such suffixes as "CiT" (firan turismo) and "CiP" (f>rand prix). redolent of Sebring. Le Mans and dangerous speed.

However, the auto industry is already safety conscious. Canadian manufacturers announced at the start of the 1966 model year that they would make some safety features — padded dashboards, seat belts and windshield washers among them — standard on all their products. Since the U. S. Senate investigation began. General Motors. Chrysler and American Motors announced they plan to install collapsible, shock - absorbing steering columns and dual “fail-safe” braking systems. And all companies have stepped up safety-research spending. (Last year, GM Chairman Frederic Donner admitted that in 1964 GM turned a SI.7 billion profit, and spent iittle more than one million dollars on safety research.)

The industry also helps finance the conventional safety organizations, which are dedicated to the principle that it’s the driver who is dangerous, not the car. Canada’s big safety group, the Canadian Highway Safety Council, gets ten percent of its financing from auto makers, and most of the balance of its budget from business with a direct interest in car sales: insurance, finance, oil, tire and autoparts organizations. Council president K. H. MacDonald, himself vicepresident of the Industrial Acceptance Corporation, condemns Grafftey for “clouding the whole issue of highway safety.” He says the safety-car theory is “just a shot in the dark.’’ and adds. "Who knows whether we wouldn't have an even worse situation if we put safety cars in everyone’s hands and removed the fear of getting killed or hurt from their minds? And who knows if anyone would ever buy such a car?"

MacDonald, who denies he is tout-

ing the auto-maker's case for them, believes driver education is still the best way to reduce the highway toll. It's this traditional view that Grafftey condemns. And he has powerful support even outside the investigating senators and Ralph Nader and his supporters: U. S. Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton says bluntly. “We have exhausted the value of this continuing assault on human nature.” Scientific studies tend to bear out New York Senator Speno’s statement: “It's the ordinary driver who gets into trouble, not the irresponsible nuts who do need constant educating.”

Which brings us right back to the need to produce less lethal cars. Toronto's chief coroner. Dr. Morton Shulman. last year reported that almost all car-crash victims in the city were killed by the steering wheel or other interior projections: by being thrown out of the vehicle on impact: or by being "ground up" inside the car when it crumpled up on impact. Harvard and Cornell universities conducted studies and came to conclusions similar to Dr. Shulman's. And another study, in New York, showed j that a quarter of the pedestrians killed j i by cars were hit by vehicles traveling at less than fourteen miles an hour: j they were, in fact, fatally gored by j radiator grilles, hooded headlights and I hood ornaments.

Makers need protection, too

Grafftey and the others who attack killer cars say this kind of carnage would he at least minimized by safety cars. They may be right, but despite their heightened awareness of the need for safety vehicles, the auto makers may actually need legislation to enable them to introduce safer cars as standard products. While they resist, almost as a reflex action, any suggestion that legislators interfere with their business, no auto maker could afford to introduce a safety car without a guarantee that his competitors would have to do so, too. Safety increases car costs, and in a business as fiercely competitive as the auto industry it would be tantamount to committing corporate suicide for one maker to increase his costs unilaterally.

In the U. S., some legislation already exists. New York State is the pacesetter: apart from financing its Safetycar project with four million dollars in tax money, it was instrumental in getting national legislation in 1964 to make seat-belt installations mandatory in all cars, and is now insisting that all vehicles sold in the state have flashing parking lights on all four corners. Safety legislation is now pending in more than thirty other states. And since the senate investigation began. President Johnson has asked congress to approve a bill that would enable the government to impose safety standards on auto makers if they don’t adopt them voluntarily.

F.ven so, major innovations in auto ' design are unlikely before 1970. if i only because manufacturers are already working on their 1969 models. And hy then, another couple of hundred thousand North Americans will have heen killed on the roads. ★