At Risk In The Driver's Seat?

In part one of a three-part Eye On America investigation, CBS News Transportation Correspondent Bob Orr reports the driver's seat in some General Motors cars has a tendency to collapse during rear-end collisions, putting the driver in danger.

Jorie Andrade is a single mom trying to keep up with her five-year-old son, Matt. Andrade is 25 and she's in wheelchair. "It's going to be a long road ahead until I'm adjusted to this new life," she says.

Andrade's new life began two-and-a-half years ago when her new Chevy Cavalier was rear-ended at a stop light, in what General Motors says was a high impact crash. Her seat collapsed and her head slammed into the rear seat, paralyzing her from the chest down. "I knew right away I couldn't move my legs," Andrade recalls.

Eye on America
Read the rest of the CBS News series of reports on car seats:

Part two: Car Seat Safety Rules Questioned

Part three:Old Rules For New Cars

She sued General Motors, accusing the automaker of building a car with a seat it knew was prone to collapse.

Tom Davis, Andrade's attorney, says GM knew that the seat could fail in rear-end collisions. "We know they have run tests, we know they did a study," says Davis.

A crash test conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demonstrates what happened to Andrade. In the test, the driver's seat gives way in a rear-end collision propelling a dummy, placed in the driver's position, violently into the rear seat.

GM argues its seats don't "collapse," but instead "yield" on purpose to prevent whiplash injuries.

For years, General Motors has aggressively protected internal documents relating to seat back failures. Lawsuits have often been settled with provisions that victims not release any information damaging to GM.

But internal documents obtained by CBS News reveal even GM insiders have repeatedly questioned the safety of the design.

In 1992, GM lawyers advised top executives the so-called "yielding seats" could no longer be defended. A private memo concluded: "We are unable to effectively demonstrate that we exercised 'reasonable care' as a caring corporation."

Later, a leading GM enginer went even further in an internal safety study, projecting that 376 to 470 lives could be saved each year in rear-end collisions if the company strengthened its seat backs.

By GM's own numbers, there are tens of millions of cars on the road with the same seat design -- a design that won't be changed on many models for years.

But GM has never told consumers everything it knows about seat backs. "They took away my life, I can't walk, I can't drive, I don't have a social life," says Andrade. "I used to have a job. I loved my job and I thought I had a good car. And I don't."

GM declined to be interviewed by CBS News about this topic. Instead it sent a letter saying: "the stronger seats advanced by plantiffs' experts may very well result in an increase in injuries, and "seats in General Motors cars and trucks exceed the strength requirements (of the Federal Motor Vehicle Standard)."