General Motors says its seats are designed to "yield" in rear-end collisions to prevent whiplash injuries. But a CBS News investigation revealed that GM has known for years that the front seats in millions of its cars can collapse, hurting or even killing people, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
It happened to Pat McElligott, paralyzing her from the neck down. McElligott was driving an Oldsmobile Regency when she was in a rear-end collision.
In a crash test, the seat collapses and the test dummy slams its head into the back seat, snapping the neck.
Internal documents obtained by CBS News show that GM's own engineers and lawyers have warned the automaker repeatedly that yielding seats do not offer enough protection. One internal GM study concluded that up to 470 lives could be saved each year in rear-end collisions if seat backs were strengthened.
And handwritten notes from a GM meeting included this: "Seat back strength is a problem..." The notes go on to say: "What do we do to correct?" Answer: "Nothing."
It also happened to Kevin and Diana Gleason, whose GM car was rear-ended with deadly results. Kevin's seat collapsed and his body shot backward into his daughter, who was buckled in the rear seat.
"They feel the only reason I did not break my neck is that Sarah's body absorbed the energy, and that's pretty tough to live with knowing that you're supposed to take care of your child and wound up my body killed my child," said Kevin Gleason.
The driver's seat also gave way under Clancy Day, who was aware that GM knew it would cost less than $5 per seat to strengthen the seat back and head rest. Day was an executive at General Motors.
"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," Day said.
All of these people sued GM because of the seat-back failures, and the automaker settled the cases for millions of dollars. But GM has never publicly admitted to a problem with its seats, which the automaker says meet the federal strength standard.
Last fall, the nation's top auto regulator told CBS News it was time that the 32-year-old seat back requirement be strengthened.
"We've known for years that one of the areas that has not received enough attention is what happens to your seat when you have a rear-end crash," said Sue Bailey, former National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator.
Bailey said that NHTSA would propose a new regulation this spring requiring all automakers to strengthen the seats to prevent deaths like Sarah Gleason's.
"Any number of children's lives lost is too much. That's why we are working quickly to get these standards changed, and we'll change them all within the next few months," said Bailey.
But that has not happened. Bailey left the government when the new president took over and she is now a consultant for Ford Motor Comany. It's also now months past the due date for the new seat-back standard. But sources say safety regulators are determined to move forward. In fact, they've put GM and other automakers on notice to expect the new rule this November.
The Gleasons and Clancy Day will be waiting. Pat McElligott, however, died of her injuries in May.
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