Popular new pedal adjusters could create legal troubles

February 18, 2002


WASHINGTON -- In just three years, power adjusters for the gas and brake pedals have become Ford Motor Co.'s best-selling optional feature.

Ford markets the item as a convenience that allows drivers to sit farther from the steering wheel while still reaching the pedals. The feature has been wildly popular among consumers of all sizes, and now other automakers are beginning to offer the item.

But Ford faces a lawsuit that says the adjusters aren't just for comfort -- they can save smaller drivers from injuries in a crash by keeping them farther from air bags.

The suit, which goes to trial Tuesday in Louisville, Ky., says Ford was negligent because it knew about the safety potential long before it started offering the option.

"There was a major risk that was known in the automobile industry to short-statured female drivers from the deployment of air bags, and this particular invention eased that risk," said attorney Ron Hillerich, representing the family of a woman who died when an air bag deployed.

Ford rejects the claim. It acknowledges the safety benefit but said it's never tried to market the devices that way.

"Even before you had these adjustable pedals, you could purchase pedal extenders," Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said. "This isn't a new concept, but a more convenient way of delivering it."

If the company were to tout the adjusters' benefit in helping prevent air bag injuries, it could be open to more lawsuits if a driver is hurt or killed by an air bag while using it.

"I think we are a little reluctant to call it a safety feature because there's some baggage associated with that," said Susan Cischke, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering.

Adjusters can move the pedals up to three inches closer to a driver. They are deployed by pressing buttons next to the steering wheel.

"Three inches can clearly mean the difference between life and death," said Sean Kane of Strategic Safety, a research firm that is helping Hillerich and other attorneys planning lawsuits over the adjusters.

Pedal adjusters were first patented in the 1950s. General Motors Corp. introduced them in its larger vehicles in the 1970s, but phased them out a few years later because of slow sales.

Modern electric versions were introduced in the 1990s, after reports surfaced of people dying from air bags in low and moderate speed crashes. Many of the victims were shorter women who tend to sit closer to the steering wheel.

At least 68 drivers have been killed by air bags, including 21 who were wearing their seat belt, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford introduced the adjusters in the 1999 models of its Explorer and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles and has since expanded the option to other models. Sales range from 43 percent of buyers on F-series trucks and Taurus cars to 25 percent on the Explorer.

"It's a great feature to sell," said Eric Hoffman, an owner of Ken Stillwell Ford/Mercury in Hillsdale, Mich. "The shorter people are definitely enjoying them, but some taller people like the pedals closer because it gives you the ability to sit up straighter."

Other manufacturers are getting in on the market. DaimlerChrysler AG offers the adjusters on its newest minivans and the 2002 Dodge Ram and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Toyota hopes to introduce the adjusters on the 2003 Camry.

DaimlerChrysler spokeswoman Angela Ford said her company sells the pedal adjusters as a benefit for safety and comfort. But, she added, "I don't think that in any way we are saying it would save someone's life."

NHTSA recommends drivers maintain at least 10 inches between their chest and the air bag. But a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed up to 5 percent of female drivers sit closer.

"I used to sit right on top of the steering wheel and I couldn't stretch out my arms," said Margaret Braman of Coldwater, Mich., who bought the adjuster for her 2002 Mercury Sable. "I would have a hard time going back to a normal car because I'm so used to them now."

Hillerich's case involves the air bag death of Lynn Struttman of Lexington, Ky. Struttman, who was 4-foot-9, was killed after being struck by the air bag in her 1997 Sable in a low-speed crash.

Hillerich said the adjuster would have saved Struttman's life, "without question."

Tatchio rejected that claim. She pointed to a study by Canadian safety officials that shows that even in vehicles with pedal adjusters, short women tend to sit too close to the air bag.

"That's why we stress that these are not a safety feature but a comfort and convenience feature," she said. "We pay an enormous amount of attention to developing technology to protect people of different sizes. Our advanced air bag system specifically includes a seat position sensor for the driver for this reason."

Stephen Kratzke, NHTSA's associate administrator for safety performance standards, said adjusters are an important safety benefit even if the automakers don't market them as such. He said the agency is studying how to get the message out to consumers.

"We should be doing a better job conveying that," he said.