Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Create Wise Policy, Not Crash-Proof Cars

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Create Wise Policy, Not Crash-Proof Cars

Article excerpt

The nation's trial lawyers, bless them, have decided that what America really needs is a safer car. They've been winning enormous courtroom verdicts from auto manufacturers by arguing that federal safety standards are not enough.

They want ever-safer cars - the ones with collapsible steering columns, active-handling systems, and other features. If the trial lawyers have their way, the car of the future is going to look something like this:

Say hi to the Hummer. It weighs 3 tons, it can climb over walls 1- 1/2 feet tall, it can drive through deep water. This aluminum beast is more than 7 feet wide, and it could squash a Volkswagen Beetle like a bug.

A civilian version of the military Humvee, the Hummer takes twice as long as the typical car to accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour. It gets only 13 miles per gallon. At freeway speeds, occupants have to shout to be heard above the engine noise. And the cheapest two-passenger model starts at $65,000.

While it may not be convenient, comfortable, or affordable, it sure is safe. (It would be even safer with the rocket launcher, but that option is available only in the military versions.)

If you'd rather drive something more convenient, more affordable, or more fun, too bad. Juries around the nation, egged on by trial lawyers, have declared war on the auto industry.

Lately, there's been a record string of punitive damages - such as a $4.8 billion verdict against General Motors in July (though the Los Angeles trial judge subsequently reduced the judgment to "only" $1.09 billion).

That case involved a Chevrolet Malibu, stopped for a traffic light, that was hit from behind by a drunk driver at 70 miles per hour. All six occupants survived, but four children in the back seat suffered burns when gasoline leaked from the damaged fuel tank.

The Malibu met all federal safety standards, including those for fuel system protection, but the California jury decided that wasn't good enough.

That verdict, and others like it, will prompt manufacturers to design cars based on fears of litigation instead of sound engineering. …

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