Car Seat Safety Rules Questioned

In part two of a three-part Eye on America investigation, CBS News Transportation Correspondent Bob Orr reports the problem of car seat collapses in rear-impact collisions may not lie with the automaker, but with the low federal standards the seats are designed to meet.
An ordinary beach chair was a crucial piece of evidence in Jorie Andrade's lawsuit against General Motors.

The 25-year-old woman sued GM after she was paralyzed two-and-a-half years ago when her Chevy Cavalier's driver's seat collapsed in a rear-end collision.

In court, Andrade's attorneys showed a crash test to demonstrate how weak the federal standard for auto seat backs really is. The beach chair was plenty strong enough to pass the test.

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

Part one: At Risk in the Driver's Seat

Part three:Old Rules For New Cars

It was an effort to counter GM's argument, that its seat was designed properly, and that it's made to yield in rear-impact collisions to prevent driver whiplash injuries. In addition, GM insisted the seat was stronger than the law requires.

Tom Davis, Andrade's attorney, sees it differently. "General Motors is telling the jury (they've) met federal standards and it's true they have met federal standards, it's just a very low standard," says Davis.

Andrade lost her case. The jury determined that GM did not manufacture an unreasonably dangerous product. And it met the standard that's on the books.

But now the nation's top auto regulator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Sue Bailey, says it is not enough for carmakers to meet the 32-year-old standard - especially if they know about dangers to consumers.

"I would like to see manufacturers make changes based on their own research, and their own information and not have to wait for the oversight that we may provide," says Bailey.

Internal documents obtained by CBS News show that GM, for years, has had information that its seat backs can be dangerous.

One confidential GM study, put together by its own lawyers and engineers, was publicly revealed for the first time during Andrade's trial.

The so-called GM litigation study of 25 cases involvig seat back failures found that deaths and injuries could have been reduced in 19 of those cases had the automaker installed stronger seats.

"It's not right...they're playing God. The next time it could be a child," says Andrade.

In Kentucky, it was a child - a child properly buckled in the back seat.

It was Kevin and Diana Gleason's daughter Sarah who was killed in an accident involving GM seats. "Sarah was centered in the center position with her seat belt on," says Kevin Gleason.

They were stopped at a red light when a truck rear-ended them at 20 mph. "I fully expected everyone to be fine because it felt like we were pushed," says Diana Gleason.

But Kevin Gleason's seat back collapsed in the crash and his body shot backwards killing his daughter. "My seatback shoulder hit Sarah right in the chest," says Gleason. "When we got to the hospital, the emergency people were right there - the nurses and doctors. They took her out of my arms and that is the last time I ever held her."

Kevin Gleason injured his neck when the seat failed but he lives with a greater pain. "They feel that the only reason that I did not break my neck is that Sarah's body absorbed the energy...and that's pretty tough to live with - knowing're supposed to take care of your child and wound up my body killed my child," says Gleason.

Their car was a 1994 Buick, a GM car the Gleasons thought would protect their children.

"We bought it because it was a family safe car," says Kevin Gleason. "It's absurd to sell cars to families when you know and you're fully aware that there's a hidden danger."

It's a danger not limited to General Motors cars. In part three, Bob Orr reports what other automakers have had seat back failures and what federal regulators say they're now going to do about it.