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Toyota is just the latest automaker to face auto safety litigation

Lawsuits over the last half-century are credited with such innovations as impact-absorbing dashboards and steering columns, and gas tanks that won't explode when a car is rear-ended.

March 14, 2010|By Carol J. Williams

The soaring popularity of sport utility vehicles over the last 15 years has brought a variety of new safety hazards, industry observers note, such as removable seats that can become missiles upon impact if not correctly stowed.

In 2000, lawsuits filed in some of the 100-plus deaths from Ford Explorer rollovers helped force the automaker to recall the SUVs and replace the Firestone tires with which they had been equipped. The tires were found to be prone to tread separation and failure, and the Explorer was more than twice as likely as other SUV models to flip when a tire failed.

Ford and Firestone blamed each other during the litigation and government probes leading up to the recall, and their 100-year collaboration ended. But industry analysts note that better tires and electronic stability control -- now standard on SUVs -- emerged largely because of the Explorer's problem.

The insurance industry and automakers have also advanced safety. Insurers, who bankroll crash testing and provide elaborate performance reports for all vehicles marketed in the country, can take credit for getting automakers to improve front-end impact resistance and the government to impose better roof-strength standards to protect occupants during rollovers.

"These are big improvements, and not just addressing defects but the way vehicles are designed to manage crash forces so that people can be better protected from injury," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which was founded in 1959.

Automakers have addressed mounting consumer demand for safer vehicles with developments such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control, said Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He points out that only about 1% of accidents now involve fatalities, and that the automakers are focused on further reducing highway deaths with accident-avoidance features such as lane-change detection.

In Toyota's case, analysts predict that the automaker's alleged acceleration and braking defects will lead to lifesaving modifications that give drivers the ability to override a malfunctioning electronic control system.

"For safety's sake, it's going to be a good thing," said Johnson, the El Segundo auto safety litigator. "It's going to be painful for Toyota and problematic for consumers who've got to bring their vehicles in, but in the end it's going to be great for highway safety."

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