Chapter 3
1978: Ford Pinto Recall
The New York Times Abstract:
After months of vigorously defending the safety of the fuel systems in its
Pinto automobile, the Ford Motor Company today announced the recall of
1.5 million of the subcompacts for “modifications” of the fuel system aimed at
increasing resistance to leakage and diminishing the risk of fire in the event of
rear-end crashes. (Stuart, 1978)
When Henry Ford began to market the Model T, the first mass-produced
automobile, in 1908, its design had no specific provisions for safety. Until
1955, safety door locks were not installed in any model, even though doors
opened in 42% of all serious crashes until that time. In general, the public
believed that the primary cause of accidents was improper driving.
The entire safety establishment, which was heavily influenced by the auto
industry, promoted the view that safety meant “safe behavior by drivers”
(Dirksen, 1997).
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40 Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective
The Ford Motor Company attempted to change this viewpoint in 1956,
when it introduced its “Lifeguard Design. This new design involved equip-
ping cars with a deep-dish steering wheel, padded seatbacks, swing-away
rearview mirrors, safety door latches, safety belts, padded dashboards, and
padded sun visors and rearview mirrors (Dirksen, 1997). The intent of these
features was to minimize the effect of a driver colliding with the inside of his
or her car during a crash. Unfortunately, General Motors (G.M.) Chevrolet’s
emphasis on new design and a more powerful V-8 engine led to more sales
than Ford that year, leading many in the auto industry to conclude that
“safety doesn’t sell. Ford management responded by deemphasizing safety
and focusing more on style and horsepower (Fielder, 1994).
Ralph Nader challenged this viewpoint in 1965 with the publication of
his book Unsafe At Any Speed. He called attention to the structural defects
in G.M.’s Corvair, which he believed (an investigation by the National
Highway Traffic and Safety Administration proved otherwise) caused the
car to become uncontrollable and overturn at high speeds. He also raised the
question, Who is responsible for injuries and deaths due to auto accidents?
Said Nader, “The prevailing view of traffic safety is much more a political
strategy to defend special interests than it is an empirical program to save
lives and prevent injuries . . . Under existing business values potential safety
advances are subordinated to other investments, priorities, preferences, and
themes designed to maximize profit” (Nader, 1965).
In response, G.M. hired detectives to investigate Nader in hopes of
discrediting him. It later issued Nader a public apology and paid $425,000
to settle a civil action for invasion of privacy. These disclosures caused
great public outrage and put pressure on the U.S. Congress to pass the
Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act
in 1966. During this time, the annual death rate from auto accidents
approached 50,000. The Highway Safety Act mandated federal regulation
of the automotive industry and led to the creation of an enforcement
agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
(Cullen, 1994). The Motor Vehicle Safety Act required NHTSA to issue
new safety regulations by January 31, 1967.
Ford management met with NHTSA in 1966 to convince the agency
that auto accidents are caused by “people and highway conditions”
(Dowie, 1994). One result of this meeting was an informal agreement that
cost-benefit analysis could be used by auto manufacturers to determine
auto safety decisions. Cost-benefit analysis is a business tool used to deter-
mine whether the cost of a project justifies the dollar value of benefits that
would be derived. Cost-benefit analysis was first used at Ford by Robert
McNamara, who eventually became Ford president. After McNamara left
Ford to become Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and
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