It's Aug. 16, 1999. The place: an Oklahoma City courtroom where a jury hears testimony in Clingenpeel v. Toyota Motor Corp.

The case stems from a crash involving a '93 Camry. High school cheerleader Amber Clingenpeel was a rear passenger, wearing the only restraint device available to her seating position — a lap belt.

She listens to the proceedings from her wheelchair.

On the witness stand is automotive engineer and Toyota witness, Robert J. Gratzinger. Facing him is Amber's deep-voiced lawyer, Richard Denney, a seatbelt litigation specialist.

Q: “Is there a greater benefit to a 3-point belt over a 2-point belt in frontal collisions?

A: “In frontal collisions, depending in some circumstances, depending on who's wearing it and how it's being worn, yes there's some potential for that.

Q: “And that's the real issue in this case, isn't it? We can talk all day about latch plates sliding, and we can talk all day about whether seats move, but the real issue in this case is that this two-point belt assembly that I've got right here, center of this car, puts the entire load of the crash on that little piece of belt right there; doesn't it, sir?”

This chilling exchange reflects, in microcosm, the emotion-charged climate surrounding restraint-system development.

In the bigger picture, government regulators moderate debates between global industrial giants and powerful public interest watchdogs. Meanwhile, engineers languish in the middle, forced to reconcile the laws of physics with the law of diminishing returns.

“We are trying to, collectively, put out a good product for the betterment of public safety,” says Tom Vos, TRW Inc.'s director of safety systems technology.

Adds Lon Offenbacher, Delphi Corp.'s business line executive-occupant protection systems: “The focus has to be, from a product standpoint, just trying to capture the state of the art and always trying to find that next solution … and help people survive crash conditions where they might otherwise perish.”

But both admit the specter of product liability lawsuits weighs on the corporate mind. And against this backdrop, the industry faces vigorous cross-examination from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

The agency not only shares the industry's stated objective, it is charged with crafting and enforcing regulations that influence the design, manufacture and use of restraint systems. Even the agency's critics plead no contest to evidence that it takes enforcement seriously.

As 2002 began, NHTSA revealed three recall campaigns — two involving General Motors Corp. and one targeting niche manufacturer Qvale Automotive Group — linked to potential restraint system problems.

This echoes a Ward's analysis of preliminary 2001 recall totals which shows 17 similar campaigns affecting seven auto makers. These recalls had implications for 1.8 million vehicles.

And in 2000, alleged restraint system flaws — from improper labeling, to anchor weakness, to ill-timed air bag firing — were second only to structural integrity as the most common cause of recall. These campaigns had implications for more than 4.5 million vehicles.

But these totals are not a valid yardstick for measuring the industry's competency, NHTSA warns.

“Restraint systems (both seatbelts and air bags) are critical safety items, and NHTSA vigorously investigates allegations of defects in those systems,” Kenneth Weinstein, NHTSA's associate administrator for safety assurance tells WAW. “We treat each case on its own merits. While there have been a number of safety belt and air bag recalls during the past few years, NHTSA does not see any trend indicating poor performance by a specific manufacturer or by the motor vehicle industry in general.”

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Washington, D.C. based the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group. objects.

“I don't think the manufacturers have enough quality control and design testing,” Ditlow tells WAW. “Air bags certainly are more complex than seatbelts. Although when you start talking about pretensioners and force limiters, you're getting pretty sophisticated there, too. I don't think it's a difficulty in the job. … Are they running at 100% trying to prevent defects in seatbelts and air bags? No.”

Auto makers, albeit quietly, add their voices to this line of questioning.

“It's not so much a quality issue that's a concern,” says one source, “This is all very new technology, with very few suppliers able to deliver.”

Claims another OE insider: “A lot of the hardware isn't doing what (suppliers) promised it would do.”

There is support for the first contention, but suppliers say the second does their industry an injustice.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 — casually referred to in the industry as “two-O-eight” — is the bible for restraint system design. Yet it's a work in progress, evidenced by a steady stream of recommendations and revisions — still under way — that affect its scope and timeline.

A sweeping statute with few precedents, 208 mandates the adoption of “advanced” air bag systems with performance levels predicated on an occupant's position and stature. Satisfying these requirements, however, demands thorough understanding of integration and gives a decided advantage to “systems” suppliers. These, it appears, are few.

Of its nearly 40 member companies, the Automotive Occupant Restraint Council lists five as systems suppliers — TRW, Delphi, Autoliv Automotive Safety Products, Breed Technologies Inc. and Takata Inc.

But questions about competency rankle.

“I think the industry has the dynamics of the crash event worked out fairly well,” Vos says, claiming 208 is considered a low-water mark. Restraint systems suppliers, he adds, seek to exceed government standards. Witness:

  • TRW-produced rollover protection system coming this month to North American showrooms aboard the redesigned '02 Ford Explorer.

  • Autoliv's Smart Belt system, bowing on the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, that shifts gears to maintain a constant level of restraint during a crash event.

  • Pyrotechnic pretensioners, under development by Delphi, that can be deployed and redeployed during the same crash event, and reused later.

    Nevertheless, 208 is causing considerable hand-wringing in the industry. Recalling the period two years ago when the standard began to take shape in response to air bag-induced fatalities and injuries, the OE insider says: “We didn't know whether we were going to have serious policy issues or not. We were taking the position that this is all doable, we'll march as fast and as hard as we can.

    “Well, as we got into this, some of the suppliers have consolidated, some suppliers have backed out. So now there's a litany of problems, some of them substantive, requiring us to go back to the agency and say, ‘Look, we need some relief in certain areas.’”

    Enter the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Along with DaimlerChrysler Corp. and Toyota, it has approached NHTSA for changes to 208's requirements, such as:

  • A deferment by three years of restraint system testing using a crash dummy that represents a 6-year-old child.

  • The modification of time allowed to collect data when conducting low-risk airbag deployment tests.

  • The reduction to 10% from 35%, the volume of each manufacturer's light vehicles that must feature advanced air bag systems by Sept. 1, 2003.

Speculation is that NHTSA will move on some if not all of the industry's demands. In fact, it already has done so, a development Ditlow finds particularly objectionable.

“NHTSA's original proposal had a lot of different tests in it,” Ditlow says. “And the manufacturers came back with their objection to the proposed standard, saying: ‘There's something like 400 different tests we'd have to run to comply with this. And that's too burdensome. It'll cost us too much money. So NHTSA ‘simplified’ it with this compromise. NHTSA wanted to do a large number of different test procedures for children, different conditions.”

And it's testing that seems to irritate Ditlow most. NHTSA caved to industry pressure and diluted the tests, he claims.

“One of the ways that you can comply (with 208) on the passenger side is you can suppress the air bag if there's a small child there, or a small adult. But that test for suppression is a static suppression test, basically a weight sensor.

“They were going to have a rough road requirement to simulate what happens if someone is bouncing up and down in the seat, like a kid. Or a woman or whatever.

“They also were originally talking about having dynamic tests where you're using some sort of sensor that senses the position constantly as someone is driving down the road. But they opted for the least strenuous test, which is just simply placing a child dummy or a female dummy on it and having the air bag be suppressed.”

However, Ditlow offers this defense of NHTSA.

“You do have sort of a Catch-22 for the agency that if you make a test real specific, you may miss a particular condition that occurs in the real world. Now, the agency is always trying to pull to a broader-type test. Then the industry argues that the test produces variable results and it's not enforceable.”

Vos chafes at the suggestion that the industry is somehow complicit in compromising test procedures or any other facet of 208.

“There is some give-and-take going on,” he says. “Now, that isn't to suggest regulation on safety products is not challenging, or in fact, very demanding. It certainly is. It takes extremely high quality product — in the design and the manufacture — to have these mechanisms and these electromechanical devices do what they're supposed to do in the time frames that you associate with dynamics of automobile accidents.”

Complicating the industry's case is the consumer. In fact, all parties agree motorists bring to the debate all the unpredictability of a surprise witness.

“We try to study that and say, ‘What can our technology do to further reduce the probability of injury?’” Vos says. “And that is daunting. We work very hard to try to come up with that. And sometimes we find something that is effective.”

The down side?

“There is a level of expectation, and with that growing expectation comes also, we fear, a declining sense of responsibility on the part of the consumer,” he adds. “That they'll get themselves into a thing of, ‘It doesn't matter what I do in this car, technology is going to save my life.’”

It's a phenomenon known as “risk compensation,” says Priya Prasad, Ford Motor Co.'s safety research and development manager. Motorists get behind the wheel and begin to feel invincible, he says, adding there is anecdotal evidence that vehicles equipped with antilock braking systems inspire drivers to go faster.

It's reflected in the seatbelt use rate which stands at 73% nationally, meaning a significant segment of the population continues to ignore the most fundamental safety device in their vehicles.

“I still see people letting their kids climb around in the cars and vans,” notes Offenbacher.

Adds Vos, solemnly: “You get yourself into a situation where there's a crash and someone, particularly a child, is hurt. … But the attitude comes: A kid got hurt. Somebody's responsible. Somebody's got to pay.

“Often times, it could be a situation where the crash was so severe that the injury was unavoidable. Or it could be irresponsibility on the part of the parent. It could be we tried our best, but the restraint system just wasn't able to do the job. And there's a whole legal industry out there right now that is feeding on these situations.”

“If it comes down to the pure technical side of it, we have been successful in demonstrating where there is no defect.”

Of 23 restraint system cases that have gone to trial in the U.S. since 1992, Safetyform.com — a Virginia-based product safety research firm — reports 11 defense verdicts. But the plaintiff verdicts that implicated auto makers, at least one of which was under appeal, issued awards totaling more than $30 million.

Notably, 18 of those cases involved vehicles built between 1987 and 1995 that were equipped with 2-point lap belts. Like the one worn by Amber Clingenpeel.

As her lawyer continued his cross-examination of Gratzinger, Toyota's expert witness, it was revealed the auto maker had been shipping Camrys to Australia — and they were equipped with 3-point restraints.

“Q. And Toyota provided them in Australia earlier than they did the United States, didn't they sir?

A. Yes.”

Australia required 3-point restraints, Denney tells WAW. American regulations did not. And even though the vehicle's design permitted their inclusion on U.S. models, they remained unavailable here because of cost, he claims.

As a result, Clingenpeel — who has since recovered well enough to attend college — was “nearly cut in half,” Denney says.

The auto industry's management needs to better balance savings and safety, Ditlow says.

“I think the dilemma is … they don't see the adverse consequences as well as the engineers do. But they can certainly tell you how much it costs. And they can also say whether it's going to sell or not.”

Muddying the waters further, he suggests NHTSA also should share some blame. Part of its mandate requires it to consider the cost of implementing the rules it proposes.

To implement 208, NHTSA says there are a variety of solutions. They range from low-tech means such as modifying air bag fold patterns and adjusting inflators, to adding pricey occupant proximity sensors.

Its estimate, at 1997 currency levels, is $20 to $127 per vehicle for a total potential annual cost of up to $2 billion, based on 15.5 million vehicle sales per year.

In defense of the need for regulation, Ditlow points to the General Motors Corp's side-saddle fuel tank fiasco.

“If you looked at the design record on that pickup, the engineers, five different times, recommended some system other than simply mounting the tank outside the frame. And their recommendations were all based on the fact that that's a dangerous location for a tank. But management said, ‘No. We want it out there because we want it someplace where we can put two 20-gallon tanks. Then we can advertise that our pickups go farther than Ford's.’”

There is no single answer, Ditlow suggests. But he offers a starting point: “I think we ought to loosen the reins on the engineers. Their problem is that they're given constraints by management.”