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Old 05 March 2008, 08:17 PM
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Flame Exploding Pintos

Comment: I came across this today. I've heard about Ford Pintos exploding my whole life, and was wondering what you knew or could find out about whether it was true.

You may not have time to read all of this in one sitting. This is compiled from numerous reputable sources over the last decade or so (some of it pre-internet), like Automotive News, Wall Street Journal, Rutger's Law review, etc. I'm just condensing it here to be more compact (yes, this is compact...)

Remarkably, the affair of the "exploding" Ford Pinto--universally hailed as the acme of product liability success--is starting to look like hype. In a summer 1991 Rutgers Law Review article Gary Schwartz demolishes "the myth of the Pinto case." Actual deaths in Pinto fires have come in at a known 27, not the expected thousand or more.

More startling, Schwartz shows that everyone's received ideas about the fabled "smoking gun" memo are false (the one supposedly dealing with how it was cheaper to save money on a small part and pay off later lawsuits... and immortalized in the movie "Fight Club"). The actual memo did not pertain to Pintos, or even Ford products, but to American cars in general; it dealt with rollovers, not rear-end collisions; it did not contemplate the matter of tort liability at all, let alone accept it as cheaper than a design change; it assigned a value to human life because federal regulators, for whose eyes it was meant, themselves employed that concept in their deliberations; and the value it used was one that they, the regulators, had set forth in documents.

In retrospect, Schwartz writes, the Pinto's safety record appears to have been very typical of its time and class. In over 10 years of production, and 20 years that followed, with over 2 million Pintos produced, no more people died in fires from Pintos as died in fires from Maximas...

The supposed design flaw of the Pinto, according to Byron Bloch, was that in a heavy enough rear end accident, the front of the gas tank could come in contact with a bolt on the differential, rupturing it, and allowing fuel to spill out, with the potential for a fire. it is, however, extremely hard for the gas tank to come in contact with any bolts that might be abole to accomplish this, unless the car is hit from behind at over 50 mph. And as was shown in the autopsy for the intital accident in '78 that started this controversy, teh occupants died from teh impact, not from teh fire (caused by an inattentive driver in a chevy van driving onto the shoulder and hitting their parked, but running Pinto from behind at over 50 mph).

In June 1978, at the height of the Ford Pinto outcry, ABC's 20/20 reported "startling new developments": evidence that full-size Fords, not just the subcompact Pinto, could explode when hit from behind. The show's visual highlight was dramatic. Newly aired film from tests done at UCLA in 1967 by researchers under contract with the automaker showed a Ford sedan being rear-ended at 55 mph and bursting into a fireball.

"ABC News has analyzed a great many of Ford's secret rear-end crash tests," confided correspondent Sylvia Chase. And they showed that if you owned a Ford--not just a Pinto, but many other models--what happened to the car in the film could happen to you. The tone was unrelentingly damning, and by the show's end popular anchorman Hugh Downs felt constrained to add his own personal confession. "You know, I've advertised Ford products a few years back, Sylvia, and at the time, of course, I didn't know and I don't think that anybody else did that this kind of ruckus was going to unfold." You got the idea that he would certainly think twice before repeating a mistake like that.

If ABC really analyzed those UCLA test reports, it had every reason to know why the Ford in the crash film burst into flame: there was an incendiary device under it. The UCLA testers explained their methods in a 1968 report published by the Society of Automotive Engineers, fully ten years before the 20/20 episode. As they explained, one of their goals was to study how a crash fire affected the passenger compartment of a car, and to do that they needed a crash fire. But crash fires occur very seldom; in fact, the testers had tried to produce a fire in an earlier test run without an igniter but had failed. Hence their use of the incendiary device (which they clearly and fully described in their write-up) in the only test run that produced a fire.

The "Beyond the Pinto" coverage gives plenty of credit to the show's on-and off-screen expert, who "worked as a consultant with ABC News on this story, and provided us with many of the Ford crash-test records." His name was Byron Bloch, and his role as an ABC News consultant was to prove a longstanding one; over the years he brought the network seven different exposes on auto safety, two of which won Emmys.

If the name is familiar, it's because the very same Byron Bloch starred as NBC's on-screen expert in the ill-fated Dateline episode about teh GM sidesaddle gastanks, that landed the network in serious trouble. More on that in a bit. Bloch was present at the Indiana crash scene, and defended the tests afterward. ("There was nothing wrong with what happened in Indianapolis," he told Reuters. "The so-called devices underneath the pickup truck are really a lot of smoke that GM is blowing to divert you away from the punitive damages in the Moseley case.") And he played a key role in assuring NBC the truck fire had been set off by a headlight filament, providing a crucial excuse for not mentioning the igniters. (A later analysis for GM found the fire had started near the igniters, not the headlights.)

In 1978, as in 1992, Bloch wore two hats. One was as paid or unpaid network consultant, advisor, and onscreen explainer. The other was as the single best-known expert witness hired by trial lawyers in high-stakes injury lawsuits against automakers. To many, NBC's Dateline fiasco seemed a freak, a bizarre departure from accepted network standards. Would any half-awake news organization have helped stage a crash test that was rigged to get a particular outcome? Or concealed from the public key elements--the hidden rockets, the over-filled tank, the loose gas cap? Or entrusted its judgment to axe-grinding "experts" who were deeply involved in litigating against the expose's target? Or, after questions came up, refused to apologize no matter how strong the evidence grew?

CBS, for one, may want to revisit its 1986 "60 Minutes" segment on supposed "sudden acceleration" in Audi 5000s. That show featured real-life footage almost as riveting as that on "Dateline": An Audi was shown taking off like a bolt without a foot on the accelerator -- seeming proof that the vehicle could display a malignant will of its own. Ed Bradley told viewers that, according to a safety expert named William Rosenbluth, "unusually high transmission pressure could build up on certain model Audis causing the throttle to open up . . . . Again, watch the pedal go down by itself."

Frightening stuff, eh? "What the viewers couldn't watch," wrote Peter Huber in 1992's "Galileo's Revenge," "was where the 'unusually high transmission pressure' had come from. It had come from a bottle. Rosenbluth had drilled a hole in the Audi transmission," through which he'd pumped in air or fluid at high pressure. (CBS still defends its segment.)

Clearly, NBC isn't the first network to run a dubious safety expose'. It's just the first to get nailed. For years the networks have relied on a small circle of outside experts to shape their coverage of safety issues. Most of these experts turn out to be deeply involved in the business of suing the companies and institutions targeted by the adversary coverage. And the result is likely to be a widening circle of embarrassment for the media.

NBC had to eat two separate helpings of crow: first for producing the rigged video, then for holding out far too long in its defense. In doing so, it was led astray by its outside experts, especially Bruce Enz of The Institute for Safety Analysis, hired by NBC to conduct the crash tests, and Byron Bloch, interviewed as an expert on the "Dateline" segment and active at the crash-test scene:

Enz's group rigged the truck with hidden incendiary devices, detonated by remote-control radio. Later, Bloch and others defended the idea. This was "among accepted test procedures," noted Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, raising the eyebrows of many safety researchers.

Enz and Bloch assured NBC that the fire was actually set off by the filament of a broken headlamp, which conveniently meant there was no need to tell viewers about the Mother's-Little-Helper rockets. (According to Automotive News, GM scientists found in a super-slow-motion video analysis that the fire started near the rockets, not the headlamps.) The network also cited the experts as its source for having told viewers that a "small hole" had been poked in the GM gas tank at impact. Later tests showed the recovered tank fully intact.

And so forth. The use of a wrong-model, ill-fitting gas cap (it apparently popped out on impact) would have been noticed beforehand, if at all, presumably by those who groomed the truck for its big moment on film. NBC reporters would probably not have relied on their own direct observation to come up with what were later shown to be serious underestimates of the actual crash speeds. One bad decision was presumably wholly NBC's to make: showing only a brief snippet of the fire, which in fact burned out in about 15 seconds, after it exhausted the fuel ejected from the truck's filler tube. NBC's camera angle also made it hard for viewers to see that flames were not coming from inside the truck itself, as might have been expected had its gas tank really burst.

Given a fuller look, viewers might have concluded that you can get a fire from just about any vehicle if you bash it in a way that forces gas out of its filler tube and then provide a handy source of ignition.
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