FMVSS 301 CAS Reconsideration Petition – January 15, 2004

January 15, 2004

VIA FAX AND ELECTRONIC SUBMISSION
Docket Management Room PL-401
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
400 7th St. SW
Washington, DC 20590

Re: DOT Docket No. NHTSA-03-16523

PETITION FOR RECONSIDERATION

The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) hereby petitions the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to reconsider the final rule promulgated December 1, 2003, regarding Federal Motor Vehicles Standard No. 301 (FMVSS 301), Fuel Systems Integrity.

Introduction

The new Final Rule for Fuel System Integrity, FMVSS 301, issued by NHTSA on December 1, 2003 is a safety charade which the agency should be embarrassed to issue. Nothing better illustrates the inadequacy of the rule than the fact that its genesis was the agency’s failure to recall the 1973-87 GM C/K pickup which had the most lethal fire defect in vehicle history;1 side saddle gas tanks located outside the frame which have resulted in over 2,000 fatalities in fire crashes, at least half of which deaths were due to fire, not trauma. The 1973-87 GM side saddle C/K pick up meets the new FMVSS 301. Any fuel system integrity standard that the worst vehicle in crash fire history can meet is an inadequate standard. When GM engineer Edward C. Ivey, author of the infamous cost benefit analysis of crash fires,2 was asked whether there was a worse location for the side saddle gas tank, he responded "you could put it in front of the bumper."3

The Ford Crown Victoria (and its twin Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis) also stand witness to the inadequacy of the new FMVSS 301. Over 100 individuals have died in fire crashes of these vehicles since 1992.4 At least 18 police officers have burned to death.5 The 1992-2001 Ford Crown Victoria meets the new FMVSS 301. Any fuel system integrity standard that the vehicle that has burned to death more police officers than any other vehicle can meet is an inadequate standard.

NHTSA Data Underestimates Fire Fatalities

NHTSA’s final rule is flawed, as it is based on an inadequate statistical understanding of both the number and frequency of fuel-related fatalities. The final rule relies upon Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, which is deficient in its reporting of fire fatalities, particularly those occurring in rear impacts. CAS has tracked numerous fire-related fatalities using FARS data, and discovered that fatalities due to fire are dramatically under-reported.

One of the primary reasons for this problem is that FARS does not include occupants of vehicles stopped on the roadside in its data on motorist fatalities. Collisions involving parked vehicles may represent one of the more prevalent crash modes resulting in fuel leakage in rear impacts, due to the potential for higher crash forces when a vehicle in transport contacts stationary vehicles. However, the FARS database is unable to capture fatalities occurring under such circumstances. Parked motorists killed by vehicle fires are placed in the same category as pedestrians, and all information regarding the vehicle and any fire or explosion that occurs in the vehicle is excluded from FARS data.6 The result of this failure in FARS methodology is that many fire-related fatalities are completely missed by the database, and then omitted from consideration in NHTSA's rulemaking and investigatory activities.

For example, the 2002 FARS data contains four accidents in which a fire-related fatality occurred in a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. In fact, there were at least seven such accidents, demonstrating the potential for the database to vastly underestimate the true number of deaths related to vehicle fuel system integrity.7 Solely in the Crown Victoria line, five fire-related fatalities are missing from the four previous data years, 1998-2001.8 In its "Final Regulatory Evaluation, FMVSS No. 301 Upgrade," the agency excludes a study based on crashes selected from the FARS database, characterizing the study's sample as over-representative in regards to rear impact fire related fatalities. In fact, the study sample may have been a more accurate representation of rear impact fire fatalities than the FARS database itself. NHTSA's underestimation of the number of fire fatalities corresponds to an underestimation of the benefits of strengthening FMVSS 301, resulting in a final rule that can hardly be deemed an "upgrade."

Omission of burn injuries

Perhaps one of the most incredulous statements in the new FMVSS 301 Federal Register notice is that there are only a few cases each year in which there are serious burn injuries and therefore NHTSA is not including burn injuries in its benefits or analysis. This simply flies in the face of reality. Does NHTSA contend that Jason Schechterle was not seriously burned in a Ford Crown Victoria fire crash?9 Or that Anne Kirkwood was not seriously burned in a GM C/K fire crash which claimed her leg and the life of her 10-year old granddaughter?10 Or perhaps the most famous burn victim of all Richard Grimshaw who underwent more than 60 operations after his stalled Ford Pinto exploded when rear impacted. When a jury returned a $125 million award, he said he would gladly trade it for a healthy body.11

In 1993, CAS submitted a detailed report to NHTSA showing the cost of burn deaths and injuries from GM side saddle pickups to be $2.0 billion dollars.12 The report cited a California hospital study which showed motor vehicle fire burns to be more serious than any other fire burn injury. As examples of fire injuries, the CAS study cited the cases of Kelly Tyler (6 weeks in Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley), Doug Worden (treated for 6 months in Harborview) and the Stephens youths. Michael Stephens received burns over 80% of his body while Robert Stephens was burned over 50%. Robert Stephens was hospitalized in a burn center for six weeks while Michael Stephens was hospitalized for six months for treatment at UC-Davis' burn center. Their bills totaled nearly $3.5 million before the Shriners agreed to provide future medical care at their burn center in Galveston, TX without charge.

 

The misery and expense that burn injuries bring about is so stunning in magnitude that it is even more reprehensible for NHTSA to discount them. How painful are burn injuries? A case in Brazoria County13, Texas proves the point in no uncertain terms. Three passengers in a 1984 GMC pickup suffered third degree burns after a side-impact collision with a truck. The most severely burnt of the three, the driver, received burns over 40% of his body. Upon their arrival, he asked rescuers to shoot him to put him out of his misery. The victim died of his injuries twelve hours later.

Psychological scars can plague the victims of GM pickup crashes as well. A driver in Maine14 who escaped his burning truck after a side-impact collision was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, the condition known informally as "shell-shock" when used in reference to war veterans. The following excerpts from a first-hand account of a GM truck fire and the victim's subsequent recovery provide evidence of the debilitating nature of burn injuries15:

"After the vehicle stopped, we acknowledged that we were free from injury. In a matter of seconds there was a loud "whoosh" and both of us were engulfed in flames. We exited through the nearest opening and tried to extinguish the flames by dropping and rolling. The skin on my face began to tighten severely and I could feel my hair melting and singeing. . . In the emergency room they cut my clothes off. My body was shaking so severely I had to be held on the table. When my parents arrived, I could see the pain in their faces. A shot was administered for pain but I felt no relief..."

"The wounds hurt to be touched, and the pain was indescribable when soaking or scrubbing were introduced...If the dressing started to get dry I would soak and take another bath. The dryness caused the most awful pain. I began to anxiously await "pain pill time." My face was so swollen I could only drink though a straw. My body ached constantly."

"I used to rodeo, go fishing, ride a dirt-bike, and water ski which are all activities that I will no longer be able to do because I cannot tolerate the sunlight. I experience pain and redness in my face when I bend over, and my face turns very red when there is a change in temperature. I cannot stand extreme heat or cold which causes me to have the shakes. I get lots of cuts to the thin skin on my hands. My scars are very unsightly and I am forced to see them every day of my life."

"New" Side Impact Test is Ineffective

While the agency's decision to apply the FMVSS 214 moving deformable barrier tests as a measure of fuel system integrity will almost certainly benefit manufacturers by reducing costs, this portion of the final rule poses an unconscionable threat to the safety of vehicle occupants. In its final rule, NHTSA has reduced the weight of the impacting barrier as well as its rigidity, making up for this by increasing the velocity of the impacting object. In doing so, NHTSA has provided little justification other than the obvious fact that vehicle manufacturers support the proposal because it reduces their costs. The agency explains that "test data" show that FMVSS 214 exposes the fuel system to greater forces than FMVSS 301, but provides no evidence that the FMVSS 214 tests will result in increased fuel system integrity.

In fact, the evidence points the other direction. In the GM C/K pickup investigation, EA92-041, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) conducted FMVSS 214 moving deformable barrier tests on three different pickups.16 The FMVSS 214 tests were even performed at 45 mph, a much higher rate than the 52 km/h standard adopted in the final rule. "No significant leaks" occurred in a vehicle that has caused nearly 2,000 deaths in fire crashes since 1973, more than any motor vehicle in human history. If the FMVSS 214 tests are unable to predict failures of this magnitude and prevent such clearly defective vehicles from reaching our roads, then the addition of these tests to FMVSS 301 will have zero positive impact on motor vehicle fuel integrity.

Recommendation for a Sound FMVSS 301

In December 1993 CAS wrote Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to seek an upgraded FMVSS 301 based on a principle espoused by both NHTSA in its earliest days and by industry engineers17 if an occupant survives the trauma of a crash, he or she should not die by fire.

The Center for Auto Safety calls on NHTSA to initiate rulemaking as soon as possible to upgrade FMVSS 301 to provide a level of performance such that "fuel leaks, should not occur in collisions which produce occupant impact forces below the threshold of fatality" -- i.e., if you survive the crash forces, you should not be burned by fires from fuel leaks. Since crash protection technology in new vehicles today enables occupants to survive 45 mph frontal fixed barrier crashes, 45 mph side moving barrier and 45 mph fixed rear barrier, FMVSS 301 should be amended to require no fuel leakage at these impact velocities or 45 mph in the near term. As crashworthiness protection improves in the future, FMVSS 301 should be further amended to provide for no fuel leakage in the specified crash modes at 55 mph.

 

The fundamental principle of crash fire safety is that if you survive the trauma of a crash, you should not die by fire.18 In 1978, CAS commented on NHTSA's 5-year Program Plan to upgrade crashworthiness standards to 50 mph barrier in the future, "NHTSA should also specify the use of fire walls between the gas tank and the passengers compartment to insure that fire or gasoline does not enter the passenger compartment regardless of the impact speed in which the rear end is hit. It would be a sad commentary on the state of vehicle safety if we made vehicles barrier crash worthy at speeds up to 50 mph yet had the survivors burn up in ensuing fires."19 CAS comments reflected NHTSA's 1971 goal of upgrading and integrating the fuel system integrity standard (FMVSS 301) into the occupant protection requirements of FMVSS 208 which was aimed at 50 mph barrier protection.20 In its Research Safety Vehicle (RSV) Program of the late 1970's, NHTSA demonstrated that 50 mph rear barrier impacts, well over 80 mph impacts into parked vehicles, were survivable crashes with good crash management and fuel system integrity to prevent injury and fire respectively.

Extensive real-world crash testing performed by the Automotive Safety Research Institute (ASRI) provides the agency with the test procedures necessary to truly upgrade FMVSS 301.21 The ASRI tests utilize bullet vehicles weigh approximately 4,200 pounds, a far more appropriate weight than that of the moving deformable barrier in the final rule. The FMVSS 214 3,015 pound barrier does not take into account the proliferation of light trucks and vans on the nation's roads, all of which greatly exceed the weight of the FMVSS 214 barrier. In addition, the ASRI tests are performed at higher rates of speed than the 53km/h specified by FMVSS 214, offering enhanced protection to vehicle occupants in a wider range of collisions.

Conclusion

 

NHTSA should reopen the rulemaking on FMVSS 301 and issue a revised rule that ensures that occupants of vehicles who survive the trauma of a crash do not die from a resulting fire. With the advances that have occurred in occupant protection in the decade since Transportation Secretary Pena made upgrading FMVSS 301 a priority, minimum levels of protection required by a revised FMVSS 301 should 80 mph front and rear impact and 60 mph side impact with a 4000 pound moving barrier. The front and rear impacts should be done both full and 30% offset. The side impact should be at the same angle as present FMVSS 214.

Respectfully submitted,

Clarence Ditlow
Executive Director

Michael Brooks
Staff Attorney

1. General Motors Pickup Truck Defect Investigation.60 FR 13752 (Mar. 14, 1995) wherein GM and DOT will support enhancement of the current standard regarding fuel system integrity, FMVSS 301, through a public rulemaking process.

2. A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/GMAttN.pdf and is incorporated herein.

3. A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/GMAttO.pdf and is incorporated herein.

4. See "MY 1992-2001 Ford Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car, Mercury Grand Marquis Fatal Fire Crashes, 1993-2003" (Center for Auto Safety 2003). A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/CVFatal.pdf and is incorporated herein.

5. "Crown Vic fire forever changes police officer," Detroit Free Press Dec. 9, 2003. A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/article.php?scid=96&did=866 and is incorporated herein.

6.  Letter to CAS from NCSA Director Joseph S. Carra, A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/NCSA10-20-03.pdf and is incorporated herein.

7. "Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor Fatal Fire Crashes, 2002," A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/CVPI2002.pdf and is incorporated herein.

8.  See id. at endnote 4.

9. "Crown Vic fire forever changes police officer," Detroit Free Press Dec. 9, 2003. A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/article.php?scid=96&did=866 and is incorporated herein.

10.  "Crash Victim Settles With GM," Detroit Free Press Jan. 17, 1997. A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/kirkwood.pdf and is incorporated herein

11. Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 174 Cal. Rptr. 348 (1981). The $125 million jury verdict was later reduced to $7.8 million.

12.  "Who Pays The Bill?" (Center for Auto Safety, 1993). A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/article.php?scid=94&did=825 and is incorporated herein.

13.  Case of Robinson (et al); Clute, Texas; July 1993.

14.  Case of Sturtevant; Oxford, Maine; August, 1992.

15. Case of Jeschke; Stephenville, Texas; November, 1992.

16. See EA92-041, "Engineering Analysis Report and Initial Decision that the Subject Vehicles Contain a Safety-Related Defect," 10/17/94 at p. 14.

 

17. Engineering Analysis Memo to GM Engineering Vice President F. Winchell (1972). A copy is attached and located at http://www.autosafety.org/GMAttF.pdf and is incorporated herein.

18. CAS has repeatedly petitioned NHTSA to adopt this principle into the requirements of FMVSS from 1972 when it sought matching the fuel system crash speed with the occupant protection crash speed to 1993 when it sought a 45-mph rear barrier crash standard and ultimately 55-mph barrier crash protection.

19. CAS Comments on Five Year Plan for Motor Vehicle Safety and Fuel Economy Rule Making, June 13, 1978

20. NHTSA Program Plan for Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, HS 820-1163 (October 1971).

21. See Docket, NHTSA-2003-16523-6, Automotive Safety Research Institute - Report re: Research Project to Increase Fuel Integrity of GM C/K Pickups when Subjected to Severe Side Crashes.