Just As Safe At Any Speed

It's been a tough year for General Motors' big pickup trucks. In February the parents of an Atlanta teenager won a $105 million verdict against GM after their son, Shannon Moseley, died in a pickup that burst into flames in a side collision. Then there was NBC. To dramatize the alleged fire danger, the network's "Dateline NBC" news team rigged "sparking devices" to the same type of truck Moseley died in-fakery that was caught and exposed by GM itself.

Now GM is battling the government. The company last week accused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has asked for a "voluntary" product recall, of being little better than NBC in its testing habits. Regulators allege that GM made a design mistake by placing the gas tanks sidesaddle under its big trucks. (The company placed them outside the main support frames instead of between them in order to enlarge fuel capacity.) The recall would involve about 4.7 million full-size Chevy and GMC pickups manufactured between 1973 and 1987. It could easily cost the troubled company as much as $1 billion, depending on what is done to the trucks. GM claims its trucks are safe, period. Says GM counsel Harry Pearce: "No fewer fatalities would have occurred in side-impact collisions if consumers had bought competitive full-size trucks rather than GM's. There is no greater risk."

So who's right? Well, according to data available from the NHTSA itself, GM's trucks are actually safer to drive around in than most other vehicles on the road. The odds of a fatal crash in a big GM pickup are essentially the same as in a big Ford pickup (chart). And as a class, the big pickups, including safety leader Dodge, are safer than the average passenger car and much safer than light trucks. Even William Boehly, the NHTSA enforcement director who has asked for the recall, says the GM pickups are safe. "There's a slightly higher fatality rate for GM than for Ford," Boehly told NEWSWEEK, "but I don't see that as a statistically meaningful difference in overall safety."

But, as Boehly will tell you, being safer than most may not be good enough. The NHTSA's investigators, relying in part on information compiled in 120 lawsuits filed against GM by personal-injury lawyers, detected a tendency for GM trucks to catch fire in fatal crashes more often than big Ford or Dodge trucks. Fires rarely happen-only 6 percent of all big-pickup fatalities involve fires. Unfortunately for GM, federal regulators have targeted fires that are caused by side-impact collisions for special concern. The chances of an individual owner dying from this subset of fires is infinitesimal: a driver could spend 31,673 lifetimes before meeting such a fate, assuming he kept the truck for 15 years. Still, the NHTSA calculates that this tiny risk is 50 percent greater than the chance of a fatal fire in a Ford pickup during a similar accident. Those numbers are too high for safety advocates like Clarence Ditlow, who called the GM trucks "rolling firebombs." And it is this small risk-in a truck basically as safe as Ford' & that has led the NHTSA to ask GM for a recall. Boehly claims that the NHTSA's crash tests indicate that fixing the trucks might save about six lives each year. GM charges that the NHTSA had to conduct these tests in unique and deliberate ways to support this claim, such as pinpointing side impacts against telephone poles exactly where cab and truck bed meet, not just against sides generally. "Our truck's safe. It's as if we get A-minus but still flunk the course," says GM spokesman Ed Lechtzin.

The trouble for GM is that it is engaged in a public-relations battle that's difficult to win. The image of death by fire unhinges regulators, the news media and juries more than other injuries in fatal crashes. A Ford Pinto model in the 1970s got tagged by the press and lawyers as a "firetrap." A recent analysis of NHTSA data shows the subcompact was actually less susceptible to fire than its peers. Still, bad press killed the vehicle. Another problem is raw emotion. "Babies are being burned alive in their safety seats in those trucks!" says Karen Fierst, a safety advocate for Consumer Federation of America, who backs the GM truck recall. Don't fire and other causes kill babies in safety seats in every vehicle on the road? "Even one is too much," responds Fierst. "We have to be black and white on this."

That may be unrealistic, but such a position is hard for regulators to resist. Americans are now-rightly-trying to improve the quality and safety of everything from prenatal child care and working conditions to cleaner air. This means, say actuaries, that a careful weighing of cost versus benefits must be done, where some risk is unavoidable. GM partisans point out that there can be no absolute guarantee that a "fix" wouldn't create some unknown but slight safety flaw elsewhere. So should GM be driven to fix a problem in which the odds of danger are so small? The highway safety act requires that the NHTSA base its actions on identification of flaws that pose "an unreasonable risk to safety." In the GM case, the NHTSA seems to be asserting that any vehicle below average in even one tiny aspect of its design is unreasonably risky. Applied systematically, the NHTSA would be establishing a rule that recalls Garrison Keillor's community of Lake Wobegon--"where all the children are above average." But Keillor was joking. The problem for GM is that the NHTSA watchdogs are not.

Each year you drive a heavy pickup truck, these are your odds of dying in an accident:

Dodge                   1 in  8,606

Ford                    1 in  6,916

GM                      1 in  6,605

Nissan*                 1 in  4,521

All passenger cars      1 in  6,053