?April 23, 2001
Fix Available for Deadly GM s Rolling Firebomb Pickups
Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President
We are here to talk about one of the most dangerously defective vehicles on the road today the GM C/K pickup truck with side saddle gas tanks and how truck owners can finally protect themselves from grisly deaths in crashes in these vehicles.
Over the years, 1,800 people have been killed in C/K side saddle gas tank fire crashes more such fatalities than we ve seen with any other defective vehicle. About 30 people still lose their lives in these crashes every year. Although these trucks are more than a decade old, an estimated 4 million of them are still on our highways. It s criminal that neither the government nor GM ever recalled these trucks, because there is a fix. GM has known from the beginning that it is feasible but refused to stop the slaughter of their customers on the highway.
GM executives get their bonuses cut when the company doesn t meet financial goals, as happened last week. But there are no consequences for executives refusing to recall those rolling firebombs.
Today we re going to explain what the fix is and how truck owners can get it. But first I want to explain how we got here, and why this fix could and should have been made a long time ago.
The problem began when the trucks were redesigned in the late 1960s. At that time, the pickup truck gas tanks were inside the passenger cab, which of course was extraordinarily dangerous. As GM debated where to relocate the tanks, Executive Truck Engineer Alex Mair recommended in a 1964 memo that the new underbody gas tanks be placed as close as possible to the center of the vehicle that is, inside the frame rails.
But the top brass at GM wanted to be able to advertise a truck that could hold more gas than the competitive Ford and Chrysler trucks, whose tanks were inside the frame rails for safety reasons. Ignoring safety, GM decided to place two 20-gallon tanks outside the frame. That would enable them to boast in ads that GM truck owners could drive farther than in competitors trucks without having to stop for gas. The company was focused solely on selling trucks.
There was one problem with that, of course. Placing gas tanks outside the frame makes them highly vulnerable to destruction in side-impact crashes. As one former GM employee said, these tanks split open “like melons.” Crashes produce sparks, which ignite spilling gas, leading to fires that literally roast hapless victims. Another GM engineer said that the only worse place to put a fuel tank would be on the front bumper.
In 1992, Public Citizen petitioned a court in Texas and succeeded in removing a gag order demanded by GM in a fatal C/K truck lawsuit brought by attorney David Perry of Corpus Christi. Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety immediately petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall all the 1973-1987 GM C/K pickups with gas tanks mounted outside the trucks frames. GM s documents revealing the reasons for this barbaric design released from secrecy supported the petition.
After evaluating all the evidence, the engineering staff at NHTSA agreed that the vehicles were dangerous and called on GM to voluntarily recall the C/K pickups. When GM refused, the Secretary of Transportation, Federico Pena, found in 1994 that GM had known about this defect since the early 1970s, and he issued an initial determination of a safety defect, which would lead to a mandatory recall.
GM then swung into action, using its political muscle to maneuver a deal with the Justice Department, which overrode Secretary Pena. Under the deal, GM avoided a recall of the deadly trucks but agreed to spend $51 million for research and other safety programs, with only part of the money going to the government.
GM retained substantial flexibility about how to pay out the money. Over four of the five years of GM payments, it distributed $5 million to Safe Kids, which is now virtually an adjunct of GM. It also gave money to several NHTSA trauma centers, securing in return access to crash data long kept secret from the public. GM funded a number of organizations that are similarly beholden to the company, including the national and state Safety Councils ($215,000), state highway safety offices ($3.5 million) and the Safe America Foundation ($1.9 million).
Thus, not only did GM avoid having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to recall and fix these horribly dangerous vehicles, but it was able to use this “blood money” to influence the programs and voice of safety groups.
So we still have the deadly vehicles on the roads, and the owners still are paying the ultimate price of death and injury.
Switch gears now to the courtroom. After the Justice Department deal, GM was hit by a flurry of class action lawsuits seeking the recall of the trucks. After Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety intervened and objected to one inadequate settlement, a federal court rejected it. We then negotiated for a better settlement in a Louisiana class action case.
That settlement required GM to pay $4.1 million for research on fire crashes, but GM refused to spend a penny on C/K trucks. Instead, the class attorneys, from their own pockets, set up a $1 million research fund to develop and implement a fix for the C/K tanks. GM agreed to give truck owners coupons for $1,000 good towards the purchase of a new GM truck or van, a not so subtle marketing device. Further, up to $4 million (from up to $5 per coupon) will be available to secure the mass production and distribution of a successful retrofit for the side saddle fuel tanks.
The $1 million from the class action attorneys has been used to create the Automotive Safety Research Institute, which is being run by former NHTSA Deputy Associate Administrator for Research Dr. Kennerly Digges. The first payments of the $4.1 million for fire safety research are to be received by the Institute this year.
Using the $1 million, Dr. Digges over the past year has designed a safe fuel tank that can be placed inside — rather than outside — the frame of the 1973-1987 C/K trucks. It has been tested in a 50 mph side crash with a full-size GM s Chevrolet Caprice the same test used by DOT s Secretary Pena.
The truck owners deserve a safe tank. They have waited far too long for GM or the government to act to prevent these horrible deaths. With GM finally mailing out coupons to owners and the new fuel tank having been tested, we are alerting all C/K truck owners that they have the option of getting their truck fixed, even though GM refused to meet this obligation directly or allow their dealers to help.
NOTE: Consumers who want to learn more about obtaining a retrofit gas tank should contact the Automotive Safety Research Institute.