Car Safety And The Bottom Line

Millions of General Motors cars have been built over the past 30-plus years with seats that collapse in rear-impact collisions. In fact, that is what happened in an April 1999 crash that shattered the life of one driver. CBS News Transportation Correspondent Bob Orr reports as part of a continuing Eye on America investigation.
Pat McElligott was paralyzed from the neck down when her Oldsmobile '98 Regency was hit in the rear and her seat collapsed. Her injuries have made it difficult for her to speak.

"Why did it happen to me?" she asks. "It's ruined my life."

A crash test illustrates what happened to McElligott. When the Oldsmobile was struck, the seat collapsed, and the dummy, just like McElligott, was slammed into the back seat.

Such accidents have resulted in thousands of consumer complaints to General Motors and other manufacturers and have cost automakers millions of dollars in legal settlements.

Documents show GM's own engineers and lawyers have long been aware of the risk.

One of the documents calls on the company to "determine whether or not the cost of litigation alone can justify substantial increases in seat back strength."

Handwritten notes from one GM meeting, recently obtained by CBS News, concluded: "Seat back strength is a problem... what do we do to correct?"

The notes continue: "Nothing."

Clancy Day has a unique perspective of the issue. He was injured when his GM seat collapsed in a rear-end crash.

That was after he retired as an executive with General Motors.

Says he, "To my knowledge, in General Motors, every decision eventually gets to the bean counters... The automobile industry, as you well know, is extremely competitive, and it gets down to the point where the bean counters get down, and they count every penny that goes into the product."

Although he was not involved in seatback design, Day believes GM has made a cost-based decision not to strengthen the seats in all models, even though a simple fix would not be that expensive.

A former GM executive who has often testified in support of the seat design has acknowledged it would cost about $1.50 to strengthen the seat and about $2.50 more to improve the headrest. He has testified: "That's not an unfair number."

Day says, "If it's two dollars a car, or if it's five dollars a car, then the problem certainly should be fixed to the best of their engineering abilities."

The automaker denies there is a problem. The issue of seat back strength, GM says, is complex and is affected by a variety of factors. GM says its seats are designed to "yield" in rear-end collisions to help reduce whiplash injuries. And the company has argued that simply making the seats more rigid may actually cause more injuries.

But an internal 992 GM document obtained by CBS News concluded there are "no GM tests or data to upport (those) assertions."

For too long, the automaker has defended a dangerously bad design, Day says.

"It's not good to know that people could possibly be killed or injured, and if it could be fixed for pocket change, then it certainly ought to be fixed," he adds.

Day sued GM and won a settlement. So did Pat McElligott. Now she asks: "How many others have to go through this? It's not's not fair."