Suzuki Versus Consumers Union

You might not even remember the Suzuki Samurai, a little sport utility vehicle that gained incredible popularity in the mid-'80s only to see its popularity vanish in 1988 with the flash of a short piece of b-roll footage. That video portrayed a Samurai on the verge of roll-over during a Consumer Reports test, and the Consumer Reports magazine piece that prompted and accompanied it, found that the vehicle was "Not Acceptable" because, it was "likely to roll over during a maneuver that could be demanded of any car at any time." The resulting uproar caused sales of the Samurai to plummet and finally forced the vehicle off the market all together.

Suzuki did not take the Consumer Reports review of its popular vehicle lightly. In fact, it sued Consumers Union for "product disparagement," and it claimed that CU had rigged the Samurai test because the non-profit organization wanted to raises revenues and decided that a high-profile news story at the expense of a relatively small manufacturer was the way to do it. Now, finally, after some 15 years, the case might finally go to a jury trial, but only because, by a narrow margin, the U.S. Court of Appeals in California reaffirmed its earlier ruling in favor of Suzuki, rejecting a request by CU for rehearing of the court's June 25, 2002, ruling in Suzuki's favor. In making its most recent decision, the Court of Appeals held that Suzuki had presented enough evidence to warrant a jury trial on its charges that CU published knowing falsehoods when it claimed that CU's tests had shown the Suzuki Samurai "easily rolls over in turns" and was therefore "Not Acceptable."

Suzuki was triumphant upon hearing the ruling, because the company seems confident that it will prevail in a jury trial on the issue. A deciding factor might be whether or not Consumer Reports testers treated the Samurai differently than other similar vehicles. Suzuki says it has already obtained and developed a great deal of evidence that CU did just that.

"The evidence will clearly show that, rather than driving all the vehicles the same, CU singled out the Suzuki Samurai and, through stunt-like steering, intentionally made it tip up -- all to support CU's pre-determined story line," said Suzuki's managing counsel, George Ball.

He asserted that CU did this "only after the Samurai received the best possible rating on the test CU had used for the past 15 years."

Why would Consumers Reports rig the test? Some cite cold hard cash as the reason, noting that at the time CU initially criticized the Samurai, CU had just purchased a new building and therefore "needed to boost its revenues to complete its capital campaign." The court concluded that this "evidence of financial motive dovetails with the evidence of test-rigging." Based on this and other evidence, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, California, for a jury trial.

While Suzuki officials were jubilant at the opportunity to present their case to a jury, Consumers Union officials were, at best, wary. Further, in a statement to the press they attempted to turn the controversy into a First Amendment issue. They asserted they should have been granted summary judgment, and that there is no evidence of malice in this case that would warrant a trial before a jury.

How does the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, figure in? It its release CU stated, "We believe the evidence demonstrates that our tests were conducted conscientiously, impartially, and fairly, and published our results in the spirit of the free press and free speech values of the U.S. and state constitutions."

Some might conclude that CU is trying to hide behind the First Amendment, claiming, at least indirectly, that even if the organization's tests were biased and offered findings that were at odds with the findings of other tests, including those of the Federal government's own National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they should be protected from a product disparagement claim because the organization is part of the press.

"This legal battle is important," said CU President Jim Guest, "not only for Consumers Union and Consumer Reports, but for every American concerned about the rights of an unbiased organization to test products independently and to speak out in the interest of safer products. The First Amendment guarantees the right to report our independent findings, even when our judgment differs from that of the government or the company in question. The record of our testing of and publication about the Samurai demonstrates our high testing standards and the consistent concern in Consumer Reports for accuracy, fairness, and impartiality. Our product ratings are based on our test and survey results, and we make our judgments solely for the benefit of consumers."

If that is the case, why does Consumers Union fear a jury, which will be made up of those aforementioned consumers?

Unintended Lane Change

It happens all too often. A vehicle lunges across the centerline directly into the path of on-coming traffic. A head-on accident often results, and with it very frequently comes death.

The reasons for inadvertent lane-changes are many -- distractions caused by cellular phones, unruly children, substance abuse, lack of sleep, or even simple daydreaming. But no matter what the reason, the result is often the same -- a crunchingly harsh high-speed crash. Anything that distracts drivers from their main objective, which of course is to arrive safely at their destination, can be a sudden killer. Perhaps you've experienced this yourself; maybe you wanted to change CDs, turn on the heater or write a quick note. You took your eyes off the road for a split second and when you looked up your vehicle was lurching out of its lane. If you survived to tell about it, you are lucky, because many don't.

These days a common approach to preventing inappropriate or unintended lane departure is the use of "rumble strips" -- grooved pavement markings that alert the driver by causing a loud noise and vibration when the vehicle leaves its lane. But "rumble strips" have two crucial limitations. First, they only warn the driver after he has departed the lane, so in many situations, this kind of warning comes too late, and the driver is not able to recover vehicle control. And more important, rumble strips are only installed on a tiny fraction of our total roadway mileage.

To address the frightening results of unintended lane departures, Volvo Car Corporation, long known for its safety innovations, has unveiled an active safety system designed to prevent them. The system was just shown at the SAE 2003 World Congress, which took place earlier this month in Detroit.

The system uses an ingenious combination of existing technology. The Volvo Lane Departure Module uses a camera with image processing software to detect current lane position. A computer associated with the camera constantly measures distances from the camera's centerline to the left and right lane markings and can detect variations almost instantaneously.

If a driver mismanages steering control through inattention, the camera/computer combination determines the situation almost immediately and applies torque to the steering wheel designed to guide the driver back to the appropriate steering wheel angle required to come back in the lane. The system does not assume steering control of the vehicle but instead gives the driver a gentle nudge that will reactivate his attention in time to avoid leaving the lane in which he's traveling.

"Results from test drives indicate that, despite its simplicity, the system is fully sufficient for helping drivers stay in the lane without being perceived as an autopilot," said Jochen Pohl, an engineer at Volvo and an author of the SAE technical paper.

Volvo is not ready to introduce the system on its passenger cars, believing more work is to be done. Company engineers say the system function has to be "transparent" and understandable to the driver, and there must be a distinct distribution of responsibility between the driver and the system. The goal of the exercise is not to design an autopilot system that will steer the vehicle. Instead, the goal is to design a warning system that can aid the driver in reacting quickly to an inadvertent lane change before it occurs. And that can save lives.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is one of the few drivers who actually signals before making a lane-change. Most of the time, he is aware of what he's doing.

Driver's Edge: Getting Through to Teens

If you're a parent, you have to be nervous about teen driving trends. The statistics are alarming: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. In 2001, more than 8,000 15- to 20-year-old drivers were involved in fatal crashes. Although this age group makes up only nine percent of the U.S. population, 15 percent of fatal crashes in 2000 involved youths.

What's at fault here? Why do teen drivers, most of whom are gifted with better eyesight and reflexes than older drivers, so frequently succumb to traffic accidents? Many experts attribute these alarming statistics to poor or non-existent driver education.

"Teenagers are learning how to pass a test but not learning how to drive," said Jeff Payne, a professional racecar driver and instructor who founded the non-profit Driver's Edge organization in 1999. "Rather than pointing fingers after a teenager dies in an accident, we should be teaching them how to drive better in the first place."

In 2002, Driver's Edge reached 1,200 young drivers in Las Vegas with solid, hands-on instruction. After gaining the support of local students, parents, teachers, and public officials, Payne wanted to expand the program to the rest of the country, so he approached Bridgestone/Firestone, since the company has shown a strong interest in driver safety through its Drive & Learn programs and tiresafety, a Web site devoted to teaching consumers about tire safety and maintenance. This year with the support and sponsorship of Bridgestone/Firestone, Payne expects the nationwide program to reach 6,000 students. The program is structured to go well beyond the lesson taught in typical high school driver's ed courses.

"Experience has shown that young drivers who receive the type of training provided by Driver's Edge are better prepared to safely respond to all sorts of driving conditions," said Mark A. Emkes, chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire. "For this reason, driver education of this group is extremely important. We are proud to be a part of this outstanding program and this excellent opportunity to make a difference in youth driving safety."

Before launching Driver's Edge, Payne spent five years researching and planning its curriculum. The 4-and-1/2-hour program, which involves classroom and on-course instruction, teaches students skills in evasive lane changes, anti-lock and panic braking maneuvers and skid control. In the classroom, students learn about driving after a tire blowout or in icy conditions. On the course, students are taught vehicle dynamics, load transfer and techniques for driving in the rain. They are also able to identify and experience the differences in front- and rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

The 2003 program kicked off this past weekend in Phoenix and will be available in 10 other cities this year. It represents an incredible value to the students who take the course.

"Comparable programs would cost about $450 per person, but we're able to offer Driver's Edge at no cost to the students, thanks to the support of companies like Bridgestone/Firestone," Payne said. "Many states have done away with behind-the-wheel driving instruction in public schools, so there's a real need for this kind of hands-on education."

In addition to Bridgestone/Firestone, AAA and Sprint are co-sponsors of the 2003 Driver's Edge program. AAA's Merry Banks says that properly educating youths how to drive safely is the most important thing that can be done in the field of traffic safety.

"Driving is complicated," said Banks, senior manager of Community & Safety Services in AAA's traffic safety office for Northern California, Utah and Nevada. "It takes time and practice to develop safe driving habits. Programs like this help our newest drivers develop the skills they need to be safer drivers."

Students may register to attend one of the 10 remaining events by calling 1-877-633-EDGE (3343).

Teen Accident Victim Makes a Difference

For 16-year-old Ashley Biersach, that day in May 2002 started just like any other one, but before the afternoon was over her life would be changed forever. Now because of Ashley's bravery and determination some teens might live to a ripe old age instead of succumbing to the number one teen killer in the nation: traffic accidents.

When Ashley got into the car with several of her classmates that day almost a year ago, she was a typical teenager with her whole life ahead of her. Instead, her young life almost ended that afternoon. The young driver, a friend of Ashley's, was taking a car full of students back to school from lunch, when a distraction caused the driver lose control of the car. It slammed into a light pole at nearly 60 mph. Though she was in the backseat of the car with two other girls, Ashley was crushed from the waist down.

"I could see that my right foot was severed and that my left foot was hurt pretty badly," Ashley remembered. "The only thing I could do was try to help my friends beside me. One was unconscious, so I gave her CPR, and she started breathing again."

Then, maintaining her courage in the face of immense pain and personal tragedy, she held the hands of both girls while they waited for rescue workers to remove them from the mangled car. The front passenger was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, and the driver died in the hospital a few days later. Ashley and her friends in the backseat survived -- but all had serious injuries. Doctors were forced to amputate Ashley's right leg, and she has several more surgeries scheduled.

Others might have left the weight of the tragedy crush their spirit, but Ashley emerged from the accident with a strong sense of purpose. When she was finally released from the hospital 49 days after the crash, she felt strongly about telling her story to other teenagers in an effort to get them to think twice about the inherent responsibility that is necessary to drive a vehicle safely.

"What happened to me and my friends was a nightmare," Ashley said. "If I can help save one person's life by sharing my story, it will be worth it."

To deliver that message nationwide. Ashley has teamed up with the non-profit driver education program called Driver's Edge and Bridgestone/Firestone, the company that has become the program's sponsor. As a part of the Driver's Edge program, Ashley will travel to more than 11 cities, speaking at events where teens are given free driving lessons by professionals. Under the tutelage of Driver's Edge instructors, students learn defensive driving skills, including evasive lane changes, anti-lock and panic braking maneuvers, and skid control.

"I wish a program like Driver's Edge had been offered to me and to my friends," Ashley said. "It's so important that teenagers learn how to drive safely. It's truly a matter of life and death."

Students may get more information and register to attend one of the 11 events by calling 1-877-633-EDGE (3343).

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad writes frequently about safety issues.

More Efforts Needed to Curb Drunk Driving

With alcohol-related traffic deaths again on the rise after coming to a near-standstill in the early 1990s, the United States has been given a "C" grade in the war on drunk driving, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the GuideOne Foundation. The last time MADD issued the "Rating the States" report was in 1999 when the nation earned a "C+" grade.

"C is for complacency," said MADD National President Wendy J. Hamilton, who pointed out that while alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped by 40 percent between the time MADD was founded in 1980 and 1993, progress then stalled. Alcohol-related crash deaths leveled off at about 16,500 between 1993 and 1999. Even more troubling, over the past three years, drunk driving deaths have climbed by five percent.

Last year, 17,448 were killed in alcohol-related crashes -- representing 41 percent of all traffic deaths. More than 500,000 Americans are injured annually in crashes involving alcohol. The annual economic cost of alcohol-related crashes exceeds $114 billion.

"The nation should be acing this fight for our lives because drunk driving is 100 percent preventable," Hamilton said. "The nation's lower grade reflects the lack of political will, leadership and resources dedicated to waging a winning war on drunk driving."

The MADD report cards graded the nation, each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico on efforts to combat the most frequently committed violent crime -- drunk driving -- and to combat underage drinking -- the number one youth drug problem.

At the federal level, in the area of political leadership, MADD dropped the Administration's grade to a "C" since the last "Rating the States" report, while the U.S. Senate earned a "B+," and the U.S. House a "C." Nationally, law enforcement programs and blood-alcohol testing and data collection efforts improved to a "C+." Passage of administrative measures and criminal sanctions nationwide remained above average at a "B-," youth programs and underage drinking prevention efforts dropped to a "C+" grade, and victims programs dropped to a "D+."

Hamilton said that the nation's grade was lowered to a "C" in part due to an increase in the country's alcohol-related traffic deaths, illustrating the "urgent need for more government resources dedicated to drunk driving and underage drinking as well as strong leadership" from Congress, the Bush Administration and other elected officials.

"The war on drunk driving has reached a complacent plateau, and we must change the dangerous public perception that the fight against drunk driving has been won," added Hamilton.

On the statewide level, no state earned an "A" in this year's report. California received the highest grade of a "B+," followed by Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon, which received "B" grades. The only state to receive a failing "F" grade was Montana. The District of Columbia received a "D+," North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and South Dakota received "D"s. Alaska and Massachusetts each received a "D-."

Sixty percent of each state's overall grade was based on its alcohol-related fatality trend and priority drunk driving laws. The other 40 percent was based on political leadership, blood-alcohol testing and records, law enforcement programs, administrative measures and criminal sanctions, underage drinking prevention, and victim issues.

MADD has identified several top priority laws for states to adopt: administrative license revocation (ALR); .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC)/illegal per se; primary enforcement safety belt laws; mandatory alcohol assessment and treatment; mandatory BAC testing for all drivers in fatal crashes; hospital BAC reporting; victims' rights constitutional amendments; vehicle impoundment; and ignition interlock laws.

"At the rate we are going, one-third of Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some point in their lives," said Jim Wallace, president and CEO of GuideOne Insurance. "That is unacceptable. Clearly, the nation and all of the states can and should do better."

Cleveland-based journalist Luigi Fraschini never mixes alcohol and driving. He has written on auto safety issues for several publications.