Create wise policy, not crash-proof cars

The nation's trial lawyers, bless them, have decided that what America really needs is a safer car. They've been winning enormous courtroom verdicts from auto manufacturers by arguing that federal safety standards are not enough.

They want ever-safer cars - the ones with collapsible steering columns, active-handling systems, and other features. If the trial lawyers have their way, the car of the future is going to look something like this:

Say hi to the Hummer. It weighs 3 tons, it can climb over walls 1-1/2 feet tall, it can drive through deep water. This aluminum beast is more than 7 feet wide, and it could squash a Volkswagen Beetle like a bug.

A civilian version of the military Humvee, the Hummer takes twice as long as the typical car to accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour. It gets only 13 miles per gallon. At freeway speeds, occupants have to shout to be heard above the engine noise. And the cheapest two-passenger model starts at $65,000.

While it may not be convenient, comfortable, or affordable, it sure is safe. (It would be even safer with the rocket launcher, but that option is available only in the military versions.)

If you'd rather drive something more convenient, more affordable, or more fun, too bad. Juries around the nation, egged on by trial lawyers, have declared war on the auto industry.

Lately, there's been a record string of punitive damages - such as a $4.8 billion verdict against General Motors in July (though the Los Angeles trial judge subsequently reduced the judgment to "only" $1.09 billion).

That case involved a Chevrolet Malibu, stopped for a traffic light, that was hit from behind by a drunk driver at 70 miles per hour. All six occupants survived, but four children in the back seat suffered burns when gasoline leaked from the damaged fuel tank.

The Malibu met all federal safety standards, including those for fuel system protection, but the California jury decided that wasn't good enough.

That verdict, and others like it, will prompt manufacturers to design cars based on fears of litigation instead of sound engineering.

Modern cars, for example, have "crumple zones" at the front and rear of the vehicle, surrounding a stiffer passenger compartment. In a collision, the zones are designed to collapse gradually, absorbing energy. In the case of the Malibu, the back four feet of the vehicle crumpled, and the gas tank was smashed.

Could GM have designed a car to crumple less, protecting the gas tank at higher speeds? I'm sure it could. But that means more impact forces would reach the occupants.

That's where engineering and rulemaking enter, to balance these tradeoffs. In the case of crash standards, both auto manufacturers and the federal government have decided, rightly, that it is better for a car to protect its occupants in most real-world collisions than to have a fuel tank that is guaranteed not to leak in a one-in-a-billion crash like the Malibu accident.

There is no safety standard without a consequence. Air bags, for example, save thousands of lives but can be hazardous to unbelted passengers or small children. Collapsible steering columns, high-intensity headlights, active handling systems, antilock brakes - all those systems have benefits, but they also add cost. They make the car heavier, which means lower gas mileage, and more complex, which means higher repair bills.

The $4.8 billion verdict in California, where trial lawyers persuaded a jury that a small piece of a car could be improved, will force auto manufacturers to protect themselves from such future punitive damages by building larger, heavier cars. Say goodbye to small, affordable cars, to zippy sports cars, to fun cars like the Beetle.

The US already has the world's strictest auto safety standards. Our traffic fatality rate is one-third of what it was 30 years ago, even as cars have gotten smaller. We don't need more Hummers. We need safety regulations driven by sound engineering and rulemaking, not by trial lawyers.

*Mitch Silver is president of Silver Auctions, which auctions collector cars in 10 Western states. He lives in Spokane, Wash.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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