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The Pinto myth

About a month ago I reviewed an excellent new book, Tradeoffs. That book discussed the infamous case of the Ford Pinto. and Associated with the case is an the even more infamous Ford memo that allegedly considered whether to install an $11 part on the Pinto to reduce the risk of fuel-tank fires. The memo supposedly concluded that the cost was far less more than paying for the dead (@ a shockingly low $200,000 apiece), and so recommended that the part not be installed.

(To be clear: Professor Winter's book does not discuss or refer to the Ford memo. I thank him for the correction.)

But some of the conventional claims about the Pinto and the infamous memo are exaggerated. I just finished Gary T. Schwartz's "The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case," Rutgers Law Review, 43(1), Summer 1991: 1013-1068. Since this article doesn't seem to be available on the Web [UPDATE: thanks to Marc L., I now have a weblink for the article: it's here] and isn't available through Lexis, allow to me to list, briefly, some of its main points:

1. The memo apparently wasn't used or consulted in Ford's internal decision making. It was attached to a letter written to the National Highway Transportation Safety Bureau (NHTSA) concerning a proposed regulation. Plaintiffs tried to use the memo in support of punitive damages, but the trial judge ruled it inadmissible for that purpose (p. 1021).

2. The horrifically low figure of $200,000 per life was not Ford's value; it was a value used, with qualifications, within NHTSA at the time.

3. The Pinto's principal design defect--locating the fuel tank behind the axle--was not unique to the Pinto. It was "commonplace at the time in American cars" (p. 1027).

4. The Pinto's safety, as measured by occupant fatalities per million cars in operation during 1975 and 1976, was comparable to other subcompact cars, such as the AMC Gremllin, Chevy Vega, Datsun 1200, Toyota Corolla, and VW Beetle. (Granted, though, that the Pinto's record in rear-end fatalities seems to be worse.)

5. The prevailing precedent of the California Supreme Court at the time not only tolerated manufacturers trading off safety for cost, but apparently encouraged manufacturers to consider such tradeoffs (p. 1037).

All very interesting.

The second half of the article is a thoughtful discussion of what the legal standards for Pinto-like problems should be. At one point (p. 1055) Schwartz proposes to ". . . require car dealers to post stickers setting forth basic data as to the safety performance of the car model." He notes that NHTSA already compiles such data and that when the article was written, such data would have shown that a Chevy Cavalier was about 50% more hazardous than a Ford Taurus.

And I say that if a potential purchaser doesn't know that, other things equal, smaller, lighter, and cheaper cars are somewhat less safe than bigger, heavier, and more expensive cars, than he's too stupid to have a driver's license.

(One of the places where I saw a reference to Prof. Schwartz's article was at Overlawyered. See, for example, Ted Frank's entry here.)