From mid-November 1992 through mid-February 1993, media coverage of the 1973-1987
Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks was intense. In mid-November, two New York Times
articles discussed a controversy about the fuel tank systems of 1973-1987 Chevrolet and
GMC pickup trucks. These models place a gas tank on each side of the vehicle, both of
which are outside the truck frame. The articles raised several important ethical questions
about safety and responsibility. Although much that is contained in the articles is
basically informational, the headlines of the two articles make it clear that the primary
intent of the articles is to help readers address these ethical questions: "Data Show
G.M. Knew for Years of Risk in Pickup Trucks' Design;" "Despite Report that U.S.
Standard Wasn't Cutting Fatal Car Fires, Little Was Done."
Although the articles are by-lined (with Barry Meier listed as author), they are not
offered as editorial opinions. Readers can expect primarily informative pieces--but
perhaps with "slantings" in one direction or another. The question here is
whether these articles provide readers with the sorts of relevant information they need to
adequately address the ethical questions.
The first headline suggests to readers that GM may have been negligent. Why, readers,
may ask, did GM delay changing the location of the fuel tanks? Internal memos indicate
that G.M. was trying to improve fuel tank safety as early as 1982. Yet, commenting on the
change made in 1988, GM officials are credited with saying it was made for reasons of
design rather than safety.
Although the articles indicate that the issues are very complex, several matters are
not in dispute. It is clear to all that the GM vehicles are in compliance with existing
safety regulations. It is also clear to all that the redesigned models (beginning in 1988)
render the gas tanks less vulnerable to damage in collisions. Various internal documents
mentioned in the articles reveal that GM considered plans to relocate the gas tanks as
early as 1982, but it was noted that any significant change would require a "long
lead time." The November 17 article cites a December 1983 internal GM document
indicating GM's intention to change the fuel tank's position in 1987: "The fuel tank
will be relocated inside the fram rails, ahead of the rear axle--a much less vulnerable
location than today's tanks."
According to the articles, one of GM's aims was to come up with a plan that would
enable the vehicles to withstand collisions from the side without significant fuel leakage
at speeds up to 50mph--thus, far exceeding the 20mph regulation in force since 1977. In
1984 a plastic shield for the tanks was introduced, successfully, according to GM director
of engineering analysis, Robert A. Sinke, Jr.--but unsuccessfully, according to Clarence
Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, who refers to this as a
"Band-Aid fix." Despite introducing a redesign in 1988 that does seem to fulfill
GM's aim to withstand 50mph collisions, G.M. countered that the relocation of the gas tank
was made for reasons of design than safety.
Aside from questions about whether GM bore any special responsibility for past harms or
deaths associated with the 1973-87 model fuel tanks, at issue were two related questions
about the present. First there was the question of whether GM pickups during this period
should be recalled. Second, there was the question consumers had about how safe or unsafe
these vehicles are.
It was reported that the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration (NHSTA) was
contemplating ordering a recall of the vehicles. One problem with this is that the
vehicles were in compliance with existing regulations. So, NHSTA would be questioning the
adequacy of its own regulations. GM indicated it would resist any such recall as illegal.
Further, a GM attorney, Chilton Varner, was cited as saying in an interview that she
believed the existing 20mph standard is adequate to protect public safety. NHSTA, however,
indicated that it might consider the question of whether the 20mph standard is adequate.
It might also consider whether the testing procedure itself should be changed. [The fuel
tanks were presently tested by being struck with wide barriers at a 90 degree angle rather
than with a narrower barrier at an oblique angle.]
The above summary gives some idea of the complexity of the controversy. Meanwhile, the
millions of owners of the vehicles in question wondered how safe their pickups were. Did
the two articles help them determine this? Various data was provided (by different
sources). Thomas Carr, vice-president for the Motor Vehicles Manufacturers Association (a
trade group in Detroit) claimed that 66% of all fatal car crashes involving fires are at
speeds exceeding 50mph. (What Carr did not mention is that, apparently, fully 1/3 do not.)
A 1990 study indicated that car fires have been reduced by 14% since the introduction
of standards on fire safety, but that there is no observed reduction in the rate of fire
related deaths. (The report points out that the number of fires could decline without
affecting the death rate if the fire deaths occur at speeds above the standard.)
Failure Analysis Associates (Houston consultant working with the auto industry) found
that, from 1973-89, GM pickups were involved in about 155 fatal side-impact collisions
involving fires. Ford had 61 such accidents. The two companies had roughly the same number
of pickups on the road.
However, Federal investigators were still reviewing the fatal GM pickup accidents to
see if the fires were actually caused by fuel tank leaks.
Sinke is quoted as saying that to determine the safety of a vehicle, one must consider
the overall picture. "Any time you look at a small slice of the whole apple, one
manufacturer's vehicles will not look as good as others. You have to look at the whole
apple, and our overall safety record is as good or better than anyone's."
Brian O'Neill, director of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is reported as
insisting that it is possible for a vehicle to have a fire problem and a good overall
safety record, since fire deaths are only 4% of the highway fatalities. "Fires can
get very easily lost in overall pool data, but the fire statistics suggest that they have
a problem. It has been well known for a long time that fuel tanks near the perimieter of
the vehicle are not a good idea."
NHSTA estimated that about 5,200 pickups and other light trucks catch fire every year.
Older vehicles are more likely to catch fire than newer ones because of corrosion and
other factors that could lead to fuel line and tank leakage.
Several days after the two New York Times articles were published, Newsweek's
full page account appeared. Entitled, "WAS GM RECKLESS?," the subtitle reads,
"The troubled automaker is accused of ignoring an unsafe gas-tank design."
Complete with a color-photo of a GM pickup truck in flames flanked by diagrams of the
pre-1988 tank locations and the current model, the article recounts much of the
information provided in the New York Times' articles. But it makes one significant
addition. It cites a September 7, 1970 internal memo from GM safety engineer George Carvil
that warned of possible fuel leaks resulting from side collisions. "Moving these side
tanks inboard," Newsweek cites the memo as saying, "might eliminate most
of these potential dangers."
A later Barry Meier New York Times article carried the headline, "Courtroom
Drama Pits G.M. Against a Former Engineer." Former GM safety engineer, Ronald E.
Elwell, was reported to have testified in an Atlanta jury trial that GM altered documents,
conducted secret tests, and ordered employees not to criticize its vehicles in writing.
In his testimony, Mr. Elwell contended that company officials knew in the early 1980's
that the side-saddle fuel tank design was "indefensible." Furthermore, he said,
the company a decade ago was developing a steel plate to protect the tanks against
punctures in collisions.
But development of the steel plate was dropped because officials feared it would alert
the public to the tanks's hazards, he testified. "It would produce the wrong image to
the public," Mr. Elwell said.
Working against the credibility of Elwell's testimony was the fact that, in 1971, GM
put him in charge of fuel safety for pickups, and he worked on the side-saddle design and
later defended it. However, Meier reported:
Mr. Elwell has previously testified that he approved the tank's side location because
the company, for marketing purposes, wanted to equip the pickups with large-capacity fuel
tanks. But he said his views about the vehicle's safety changed in 1983, when he learned
from his superior about company tests run from 1981 to 1983 that showed the tanks
splitting open when a pickup was hit in the side by a care moving at 50 miles an hour.
Mr. Elwell said he was outraged because G.M. had not made the tests available to him
before he had testified in a San Francisco pickup case that year, leading him to feel he
had perjured himself. "The tanks were split open like watermelons," he said.
Although GM officials and attorneys in the Atlanta case were not allowed to comment
publicly on the case, Meier indicated that other lawyers not involved in the case
predicted that GM would try to discredit Elwell's testimony on the grounds that he is a
disgruntled former employee. Elwell reportedly complained that GM began easing him out of
serving as an expert witness shortly after the 1983 San Francisco case. The suggestion is
that Elwell might be seeking revenge for being pushed into taking early retirement in 1986
after a 30 year career at GM. (Elwell was 56 in early 1993.)
Meier concluded his article:
Though Mr. Elwell's motivations may never be fully clear, consumer advocates believe in
him. "He could be out selling his testimony against General Motors, but he isn't
doing that," said Clarence M. Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a
Washington Consumer group.
G.M. lawyers also indicated in pre-trial dispositions that they might assert that Mr.
Elwell threatened the company, for not hiring him as a private consultant after he
On February 5, 1993, the result of the Atlanta jury trial was announced. The court
ruled that GM was to pay $101 million to the parents of Shannon Moseley, a 17 year-old boy
who burned to death in a 1989 crash in his GMC pickup. This was the first punitive award
among the many court cases involving GM's side-saddle vehicles. The court also awarded
$4.2 million in compensatory damages to Shannon Moseley's parents. GM objected to the
$105.2 million verdict and indicated its intent to appeal.
Only 3 days later, on February 8, 1993, GM launched a vigorous attack against NBC for
its November 1992 "Dateline NBC" portraying of GM pickups. "Dateline
NBC" had presented footage to demonstrate what could happen to a GM pickup in a
side-impact crash. The film showed a 1977 Chevrolet pickup erupting into flames. NBC
correspondent explicitly stated that the demonstration was "unscientific" and
that it was not presented as a random experiment to see what might happen. However, she
failed to mention that the private testing company in Indiana attached tiny toy rockets to
the underside of the truck and ignited them by remote control to make sure sparks would be
present when a Chevrolet Citation struck the side of the pickup. Although NBC initially
defended its actions, it soon issued a public apology. Public attention was suddenly
shifted from safety issues to questions of media responsibility.
Press coverage of the GM controversy also made a decided shift. The May 10, 1993 issue
of Newsweek carried a full page article entitled, "Just as Safe at Any Speed:
The Feds asked GM to recall its trucks, but has the pickup-fire flap unfairly tainted the
automaker?" In this article GM is reported as challenging NHTSA's request for a
"voluntary" recall of GM pickups. GM claimed that NHTSA's own data shows that GM
trucks are safer to drive than most other vehicles. NHTSA's data indicate that drivers of
GM pickups have 1 chance in 6,605 of dying in an accident. Odds for Ford pickup drivers
are only slightly better (1 in 6,916). For Dodge it is 1 in 8,606, while for Nissan's
light, compact model it is 1 in 4,521. For all passenger cars it is 1 in 6,053.
However, Newsweek points out, these data are about fatalities in general, not
fatalities related to fires. William Boehly, the NHTSA enforcement director who has asked
for the "voluntary" recall, concedes that the GM pickups do well in overall
safety--but not in regard to fatalities resulting from fire. Newsweek reports:
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's--that has led the NHTSA to ask GM for a recall.
According to Newsweek, Boehly claimed that NHTSA tests indicate that six lives a
year might be saved if the pickups are fixed. GM's reply is that, to support this, NHTSA
tests had to be highly selective for certain kinds of side-impact crashes--such as impacts
against telephone poles at the point where cab and truck bed meet. GM's Ed Lechtzin is
quoted as saying, "Our truck's safe. It's as if we get A-minus but still flunk the
Newsweek points out that the highway safety act requires that NHTSA focus its
attention on flaws that pose "an unreasonable risk to safety." But it concludes:
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.
Identify the ethical issues surrounding the controversy over the GM side-saddle tanks.
What are the relevant facts? What factual, conceptual, and application issues are there?
Some more specific issues you might address are: Given that motor vehicles will always
place us at some risk, how are we to understand 'safe'? If NHSTA is questioning its own
standards, what kinds of criteria do (and should) they use? Can a product be unacceptably
risky even though it satisfies current safety regulations? What does it mean to say that a
design is changed that improves safety but it made for reasons of design rather than
reasons of safety? Is this acceptable engineering practice? If a vehicle has an overall
safety rating as good as its competitors, does it follow that it should not be required to
improve any particular safety features?