USA: Lawyers hit convenience feature with safety suit
That steady banging you can hear in the distance could well be the sound of a group of US vehicle component engineers quietly banging their heads against the wall in disbelief.
Only in America.
These guys labour for days, months, years, whatever, developing a safe and practical way to make a car or truck#;s foot pedals adjustable, moving back and forth just like a driver#;s seat or steering wheel, the better to fit the vehicle to the driver, short, tall or something in-between.
So do grateful car owners beat a path to showrooms selling adjustable pedal-equipped vehicles, singing nothing but the engineers#; praises for a system that, finally lets everyone from short-legs lardball to waif-like minisupermodel drive their vehicle of choice without being wedged against the steering wheel?
Do they heck.
According to Associated Press, a lawsuit recently slapped on Ford argues that the company's power-adjusted accelerator and brake pedals are not just for comfort - they can save shorter drivers from injuries in a crash by keeping them farther back from the steering wheel air bag, which can inflate at speeds of up to 200 mph.
AP said that Ford is selling the adjusters - a top-selling optional feature - as a convenience that allows drivers to sit farther from the steering wheel while still reaching the pedals. The feature has been popular with consumers of all sizes, and other vehicle makers are beginning to offer adjusters, AP added.
So what is the litigant#;s problem, you might ask.
Well, according to the AP story, the suit, due in a Louisville, Kentucky court today, claims that Ford was negligent because, get this, it knew about the adjusters' safety potential long before it started offering the option.
"There was a major risk that was known in the automobile industry to short-statured female drivers from the deployment of air bags, and this particular invention eased that risk," said attorney Ron Hillerich, representing the family of a woman who died when an air bag deployed, in the AP report.
Ford rejects the claim, AP said. It agrees there is a safety benefit but has not tried to market the adjusters that way.
"Even before you had these adjustable pedals, you could purchase pedal extenders," Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio told AP. "This isn't a new concept, but a more convenient way of delivering it."
AP said that if Ford billed the pedal adjusters as a safety feature, it could leave itself open to lawsuits if a driver was hurt or injured by an airbag while using the feature.
"I think we are a little reluctant to call it a safety feature because there's some baggage associated with that," said Susan Cischke, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering, told AP.
AP said the electrically-operated adjusters move the pedals up to three inches (75millimetres) nearer to a driver.
And litigation-ready US lawyers seem to be already circling that close.
"Three inches can clearly mean the difference between life and death," Sean Kane of Strategic Safety, a research company that is helping Hillerich and other attorneys planning lawsuits over the adjusters, told AP.
Pedal adjusters aren#;t as new as you might think, either.
According to AP, they were first patented in the 1950s and introduced in larger GM vehicles in the 1970s, but were phased out a few years later because of slow sales.
Ironically, the device re-surfaced in the 1990s with safety in mind.
AP said that the modern electric versions now used were introduced after reports of people dying from injuries when air bags deployed in low and moderate speed crashes. Many of the victims were shorter women who tend to sit closer to the steering wheel.
Since 1990, at least 68 drivers have been killed by air bags, including 21 who were wearing their seat belt, AP said, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Ford introduced the adjusters in 1999 Explorer and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles, AP said. The option is chosen by 43 percent of buyers of F-series trucks and Taurus cars and 25 percent of Explorer owners.
The US government recommends drivers maintain at least 10 inches (250mm) between their chest and an air bag, AP said. But a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that as many as five percent of female drivers sit closer, AP added.
AP said that the Kentucky suit cites Lynn Struttman of Lexington, Kentucky, who was just four feet nine inches tall, and died after being struck by the air bag in her 1997 Ford-built Mercury Sable after it deployed in a low-speed crash.
Hillerich said the adjuster would have saved Struttman's life, "without question", AP added.
Looks like this issue is going to run and run.