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Old 05-04-2005, 02:12   #1 (permalink)
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US:Ford fights Internet posting of roof-safety documents

Ford fights Internet posting of roof-safety documents

NHTSA removes files from public Web site after company claims they reveal trade secrets

By Myron Levin / Los Angeles Times

Federal auto-safety regulators have taken the unusual step of removing documents on vehicle roof design from a government Web site at the request of Ford Motor Co. The material includes internal reports from Ford and its Volvo subsidiary that suggest the Swedish automaker views sturdy roofs as an important safety feature, a stance at odds with that of its parent company.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday removed the documents from a Web site of public comments on proposed changes in the federal standard for roof strength in passenger vehicles. Ford requested the material be removed, saying that a court order in a wrongful-death case in Florida barred their release and that the disclosure would cause "irreparable" harm and could reveal trade secrets.

A NHTSA spokesman said the agency would review Ford's confidentiality claim and decide what to do with the papers.

The action comes amid a highly charged debate over NHTSA's effort to craft a tougher vehicle-roof-strength standard, a move opposed by Ford and other major automakers who say roof strength has little effect on occupant injuries in rollover accidents.

The episode highlights a sensitive issue for Ford, a difference in design approach between Ford and the Swedish automaker Ford acquired in 1999.

Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said Ford and Volvo "are both safety pioneers" that incorporated new safety features in their sport utility vehicles. She said research by both companies has shown "no direct causal correlation between roof strength and injury severity."

Roof collapse in vehicle rollovers may cause or contribute to as many as 6,900 serious to fatal injuries per year, NHTSA estimates. Safety advocates say the current roof crush standard, adopted in 1971, was too weak then and is grossly inadequate now given the popularity of top-heavy pickups and SUVs.

NHTSA recently sent a draft of a proposed new roof standard to the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews major federal regulations. The proposal has not been made public.

The Ford and Volvo documents had been posted for about 24 hours on the NHTSA site when Ford requested their removal.

The documents were submitted to NHTSA by Sean Kane, a Massachusetts-based safety con******t who often works with plaintiffs in automotive liability cases. Kane said in March that he and others obtained copies of the papers from public court files in Duval County, Fla., where they were exhibits in a wrongful-death case involving a Ford Explorer.

A jury in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 18 ordered Ford to pay damages of $10.2 million to the husband of Claire Duncan, 26, who died after her 2000 Ford Explorer rolled and the roof collapsed. The Duncan family lawyers sought to prove with the documents that Ford skimped on safety and that its public position on roof strength was undercut by Volvo's.

Ford had produced the documents to the Duncan lawyers under a protective order that barred them from publicly releasing the documents. But the papers were stored in court files after the case ended. Realizing that people were copying the documents, Ford filed a motion April 22 to enforce the protective order.

By then, copies had been made for Kane and others, including The Detroit News, which publicized some of the documents in an article in late March.

The documents include test data suggesting that roofs on Ford Explorers were made progressively weaker during the 1990s to the point where they were barely more robust than required by the federal standard. The Explorer roofs have a "less than desirable safety margin," said a Ford engineer in an e-mail in October 1999.

The Volvo documents reflect its concern about increasing roof strength for the new Volvo XC-90 SUV, along with improving seat belts to hold passengers firmly in place in a rollover. The documents discussed the development of more advanced tests to see how roofs perform in rollovers.

"Improvements in this area will increase the passengers' rollover protection," one Volvo report said.

The roof of the Volvo SUV is more than twice as strong as required by the federal standard, the Swedish company has previously said.

Ford told NHTSA in its letter Friday that the documents could expose trade secrets, such as "the strategies by which new technological advancements are introduced."

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said removal of the material might be only temporary.

"There were some documents that were placed in the public docket, which is a privilege or right that anyone has," Tyson said. In response to Ford's request, "we have removed the documents from the public file while Ford makes its claim for confidentiality, which we'll review and then make a decision."
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Old 05-10-2005, 03:54   #2 (permalink)
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Re: US:Ford fights Internet posting of roof-safety documents

Ford pushes to seal memos on vehicle roof strength

Evidence in Florida Volvo trial reveals correlation between design and injury.

By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

About rollovers
• About 7,000 people are killed or seriously injured each year in rollovers where there is some roof intrusion.
• The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to issue a revised requirement for roof strength later this year.
• Safety advocates want NHTSA to adopt a dynamic test that will represent what happens in a real-life rollover crash.
• Auto manufacturers have argued for decades that strengthening roofs will not improve safety, since occupants "dive" into the roof during a rollover.
• Experts say wearing a seat belt is the most effective way to avoid rollover injury.

WASHINGTON -- Ford Motor Co. is fighting a two-front battle -- one in a Florida court, the other with federal safety regulators -- to seal documents that suggest roof strength is key to protecting people in rollover crashes.

The conflict comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent a proposed update to the roof crush standard to the White House for review. The new rules are expected to be finalized later this year. Consumer activists are campaigning for stronger roof requirements.

Ford has asked a court in Florida to issue an order preventing the public from viewing crash reports from its Volvo subsidiary that showed engineers working to improve the roof structure and seat belts in the XC90 to make the SUV safer.

The documents were used at trial by lawyers for Claire Duncan, who was killed in a rollover crash involving a Ford Explorer.

Ford, which lost the case, said the Explorer's roof exceeded federal standards, and federal crash data show that the SUV is as safe as comparable vehicles.

Other documents used as evidence in the trial showed Ford engineers made the Explorer roof weaker during two vehicle redesigns in the 1990s.

Duncan's lawyers said Ford designed down to a minimum federal standard when it knew a stronger roof would have provided more safety.

The same documents used as evidence in the trial were placed in the public docket of the NHTSA on April 26. They were temporarily removed last week after Ford protested.

Ford says the papers contain corporate trade secrets. In an April 29 letter to NHTSA, Ford assistant general counsel Donald Lough wrote that widespread public access to the documents "would likely result in substantial competitive harm" by revealing how the company introduces new technologies.

The Detroit News first reported on the Ford and Volvo documents March 29, after a reporter obtained evidence used at the trial in Duval County Circuit Court. Other major media outlets have also reported on the documents.

Lawyers for the Duncan family said they would fight a request from Ford to put the evidence at the trial back under seal in a hearing scheduled for May 16. They contend that Ford's request would violate state law, which holds that court proceedings are public events.

"Our position is simple: If it was used as evidence, it is public information," said Raymond Reid, an attorney with Pajcic & Pajcic in Jacksonville.

Safety advocates said the Volvo engineering reports were especially damning, considering the longtime contention by Ford -- as well as General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group -- that roof strength is not an important factor in rollover crashes.

The companies have argued for decades that occupants are killed or injured in rollover crashes because they fly out of their seats and "dive" into the roof as the vehicle turns over.

The Volvo test reports show that engineers in Sweden placed a high priority on roof strength, as well as improved safety belts, as Volvo developed its first SUV, the XC90. In one test report, dated August 1999, a crash-test dummy received severe head blows as the roof caved in.

After adjustments were made to the roof structure, as well as to the windshield, sun roof and seat-belt pretensioners, a dummy survived another test with minor injuries, according to a September 2000 test report.

"The combination of reinforced roof strength and more effective belt pretensioners were successful!" a Volvo memo stated.

The Ford documents, in contrast, outline how Ford's redesign of the Explorer between 1995 and 1999 resulted in the SUV meeting only minimum roof safety standards despite the concern of some engineers, according to internal e-mails from October 1999 unsealed during the trial.

Sean Kane, the auto safety con******t who submitted the Ford documents to NHTSA, said he wanted the public to see another set of data that showed a correlation between injury and roof strength.

"Ford and Volvo both say they're safe vehicles, but here's an area where there is no information available to a consumer," said Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts legal services firm. "I would hope the agency would see what's missing in the whole debate is how well a vehicle holds up in a rollover crash."

Ford is appealing the $10.2 million jury verdict in the Duncan case.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the agency took the documents down temporarily, and it is waiting for a full legal argument from Ford about why they should not be available to the public. That could happen in the next few days, Ford's lawyers say.

"We will make them publicly available if at all possible," Tyson said. "At the same time, we have a manufacturer who is making an argument about why they should be confidential. We're going to give them an opportunity to be heard."

Separately on Monday, federal officials told a Society of Automotive Engineers gathering in Washington they were researching ways to protect people in rollover crashes that go beyond stronger roofs.

Officials at NHTSA's test track in Marysville, Ohio, said they were looking at tests to measure the effectiveness of side air bags in preventing ejections in rollovers.
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My next Ford.....
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