Road Safety: 'The year of the recall'
With nearly 20 million cars and trucks on our roads, automobiles have become a fact of life for Canadians. But our reliance on them comes at a cost. Over the past 50 years nearly 200,000 Canadians have died in traffic accidents — more than were killed in both world wars combined. In addition, despite vastly improved safety measures automobile accidents continue to be a major cause of death of younger Canadians. CBC Archives takes a look at the long, slow road to improved traffic safety.
This CBC Radio clip from 1978 examines how heightened public concern and stronger enforcement are leading to unprecedented numbers of vehicle recalls.
. The growing number of recalls affected all of the U.S. carmakers, but models recalled in the largest numbers were the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare (both Chrysler products), and the Mercury Bobcat and Ford Pinto (made by Ford).
. The Pinto, a fuel-efficient sub-compact car, was introduced in 1971. As court documents later proved, the Pinto's fuel tank was poorly made and, thanks to its placement above the rear axle, was prone to explosions in rear-end collisions.
. In 1978, a California Superior Court awarded $127.8 million US in punitive damages to a 19-year-old man in a civil action that resulted from a 1972 Pinto crash that left him with burns to 90 per cent of his body.
. During the case, confidential documents from Ford showed that the company's executives were aware of the gas tank problem, but decided not to fix it. A memo from 1972 showed that Ford had calculated a mass recall would cost them an estimated $137 million US.
. The same analysis showed that the potential legal cost from the explosive tanks would be an estimated $50 million US in legal fees and cash settlements. The memo concluded that the Pinto retrofit would not be "cost effective," and nothing was ever done as a result.
. By 1978, 54 people had reportedly died in rear-end Pinto collisions - including an off-duty RCMP officer in Windsor, Ont. Safety experts, including Ralph Nader, maintain this number would have been much higher if crash scene investigators had known what to look for.
. Answering questions about the Pinto in August 1978, Henry Ford II, the chief executive of Ford, said "the lawyers would shoot me for saying this, but I think there's some cause for concern with the car."
. In September 1978, a grand jury in Indiana indicted the Ford Motor Company on three counts of reckless homicide and one count of criminal recklessness in connection with a Pinto accident that left three women dead. The case was the first time a company had been criminally charged for alleged product defects.
. In a Toronto Star interview, American attorney Craig Spagenberg compared the case to "firing a gun into crowd. You know someone will be hit, but you don't know who."
. In March 1978, a jury in Elkhart County, Ind., found Ford not guilty of the charges following a 10-week trial.
. Motivated by mounting court cases and government pressure, Ford eventually recalled 1.9 million Pintos made between 1971 and 1976 for fuel tank repairs. The problem was fixed in newer model Pintos, which continued to be built until 1980.
Program: Sunday Magazine
Broadcast Date: Oct. 1, 1978
Guest(s): Gordon Campbell, Phil Edmonston, Larry Johnson
Reporter: Ron Adams
Last updated: July 20, 2012
Page consulted on December 6, 2013
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