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Car safety has come a long way

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Posted: 2 pm ET

I've been doing some research on the history of auto recalls for an article that will be coming out soon, and what struck me was how far the U.S. has come in holding auto companies accountable for car safety. I'm not saying it's perfect by any means, but it's a heck of a lot better than it was, say, 45 years ago, when people were looking at Ralph Nader like he had three eyes for wanting seat belts to be mandatory on new cars. To me it's amazing to think that seat belts, something we now consider such a no-brainer that you're legally required to wear one in most states, only became mandatory in 1965 -- at some point in recent history, seat belts were actually controversial. But what struck me more was the sheer chutzpah of the Big Three back when they controlled 80 percent or more of the U.S. automarket.

1969 Chevrolet ad

A 1969 Chevrolet ad.

One of the first big recall cases involved failing motor mounts in Chevy cars. If that doesn't sound all that bad, imagine driving down the road, and your car begins to shake. Next thing you know, the throttle is wide open, your car is barreling forward and you can barely push your brake pedal down because the brake power assist has been disconnected. Sounds like a nightmare, right? But that's exactly what happened.

And how did GM respond when word got out? According to a Time article published in 1971: "GM officials maintained that the rubber section 'obviously cannot be expected to have the life of the metal parts that it connects.'"

I mean, come on, isn't it obvious? Of course people shouldn't expect their engine to stay attached to the frame of their car and refrain from trying to kill them.

But it gets better. From the Center for Automotive Safety: "GM President Edward Cole declared that a broken mount was the equivalent of a "flat tire or blowout", and that anyone who could not control a car with a failed mount at 25 mph "shouldn't be driving."

So, Mr. Cole, you're suggesting that your car going berserk and trying to kill you "Christine"-style is something any competent driver should know how to deal with? That's funny, because I don't remember that being part of my driving test.

Imagine what would happen if these folks tried something like this today. The "United Breaks Guitars" guy would have a field day on the Internet, Congress would be hauling them up for a public tongue-lashing and GM stock would be dropping like a rock. Sure, Toyota fought a recall, but it was smart enough to do it behind closed doors. Once word got out, they tucked their tales between their legs and admitted making mistakes.

I'm just glad these immortal words about car safety concerns by the late, great former Campbell Soup president W.B. Murphy never came to pass:

"It's of the same order as the hula hoop -- a fad. Six months from now we'll probably be on another kick."

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1 Comment
June 16, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Man I thought the cigarette companies were bad! With a history like this, it's no surprise that Americans don't buy American cars as much anymore. Auto makers need to treat their customers with respect and realize that negative experiences with cars leave much more lasting impressions than positive ones.