Though often repeated, the statistics remain devastating.
On the average, every American can expect to be involved in a serious accident once every 10 years.
After the first weeks of an infant's life, car accidents are the leading cause of death and serious injury for children.
About half of the people killed or injured in car crashes would have been saved from serious harm had they worn safety belts. (Only one out of 10 Americans uses them.)
But finally, says Jack Gillis, author of the controversial The Car Book (Tilden Press, 80 pages, $4.95) where these figures appear, the implications are beginning to have an impact on car buyers. "Consumers are becoming more concerned about the safety of autos."
Under Gillis' guidance, the 1981 edition -- detailing results of the government's car-crash test -- was published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It became an instant hit, with more than l million copies distributed in the first three weeks.
The Reagan administration, however, declined to publish a 1982 version, claiming the test results were "unfair." Gillis decided to update it anyway and have the second edition produced privately, a move that did not endear him with his former bosses.
Gillis' interest in auto safety was aroused 10 years ago when the Volvo he was driving slammed into the rear of a car stopped in front of him. Fortunately, he says, "The front end of the Volvo collapsed -- as it was designed to do." As a result he and his sister, both wearing seatbelts, escaped with no injury.
Gillis' first reaction was "anger." It would cost at least several hundred dollars to repair his car, "a lot of money at the time." But then the realization dawned: "That front collapse saved my life. It wasn't a bad price to pay."
At 31, Gillis is a man with a message: The automobile industry, he is convinced, "has the technology to build safety into cars."
The Car Book, he hopes, will stimulate improvements by giving car-buyers comparative information to make a choice. If motorists, he reasons, start shopping for -- and demanding -- safety features, auto companies will have to incorporate them.
If American manufacturers don't think safety, "They are missing the boat," he says. "The Japanese are going to do it," just as they produced the popular fuel-efficient small cars.
Gillis' book also addresses, with comparative data, the problem of maintenance and repair costs. Americans turned to foreign imports, he maintains, because they saw them as more reliable than the homemade product. "So many Americans are dying to buy American cars," but they "aren't stupid. They understand quality control."
The immediate success of the book's first edition, Gillis believes, is "indicative of the fact that the public is starving for useful information on cars. We're entering the era of the enlightened consumer. They are crying out for comparative information."
Last year, he says, "Americans spent nearly $55 billion on car maintenance and repair and nearly $250 billion to own and operate their automobiles. These are the hidden costs . . . which are rarely forgotten after the purchase is made."
In the five rating categories -- crash, fuel economy, preventive maintenance, repair costs and insurance costs -- no single one car, he says, performs well in all. "That dramatically illustrates the trade-off consumers must make. To buy a small car for fuel economy, you are doubling your chances of being killed in an auto accident."
The safest car today?
"I feel the Volvo." After trouble initially with a seatbelt that was too long, the 1982 Volvo has come out, he says, "with flying colors." Among its other attributes: "Reasonable fuel economy; medium preventive maintenance costs; low repair costs, and regular insurance costs."
Gillis was working in the consumer-affairs office of Western Union in 1979 when he was hired by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a marketing director. His assignment: Find a way to make the government's substantial auto data available to the public in an accessible format. The result: the sprightly-designed The Car Book.
"One of the unique things," he says, is that "we were establishing a new basis of comparison--safety and performance instead of styling. We're opening up a whole new market place that depends on technological innovations." Detroit was "very critical," fearing the potential expense.
One quick result was that the Japanese-made Honda Civic, which did poorly in initial crash tests, made some minor adjustments and in a retest, was "one of the best performers," says Gillis.
Among charges leveled at Gillis' data was that that one head-on crash into a fixed barrier (at 35 mph) was insufficient to determine a vehicle's safety. But, says Gillis, even one crash indicated "very significant" differences. The type of test accident was selected "because most accidents occur at 35 mph and 55 1/2 percent are front-end collisions."
If the government continues to crash new models, "I hope they will expand to include side and rollover accidents," he says. "If the consumer demands it, they will respond." If not, he is considering raising funds himself to have new car models tested for subsequent editions of the book. He figures a test costs about $7,000, plus the cost of the car.
Gillis had hoped the new administration might renew the book, but last July -- seated in his Office of Automotive Ratings -- he read in the paper that it was to be discontinued. He checked with NHTSA's legal office to see if any rules prevented him from working on the book on his own time. Among stipulations he was told: He was not to use government time or material or use information not available to the public.
He decided to go ahead secretly. "I didn't take a paper clip home." If he needed data from his own office, he had acquaintances phone to make sure it was available to non-agency people. In the meantime, he was introduced to Joel Makower, who had recently formed Tilden Press to publish his own book on office hazards. Makower agreed to take on The Car Book.
Gillis told his bosses Dec. 4 what he was doing and resigned his $40,000-a-year federal job. The book came out three days later. It was attacked immediately by NHSTA head Ray Peck, who charged that many of the ratings in Gillis' book for 1982 models are based on tests of 1981 cars. Gillis' response was that he had hired an engineering firm to determine which 1981 results would apply to 1982 cars. The models, he argued, did not have any major structural changes.
The new book has "4,400 pieces of data," says Gillis, and "4,000 are new information not available in the old book," including new chapters on buying tires, car warranties and child-safety seats.
To help offset the $80,000 cost of printing the first 50,000 copies, Gillis invested $30,000 of his own. "Now I have no money, but I hope to recoup it." Based on early response, a second printing of 50,000 has been ordered. Meanwhile, he hopes to establish a consulting firm to advise businesses on establishing consumer-affairs offices.
"I think there is a strong demand. More and more companies are becoming conscious that they have a responsibility to consumers."
What does he drive?
"A Honda Accord, which hasn't been crash-tested. I'm a strong believer in the Japanese system of quality control. I paid a dealer surcharge, more than the list price, because it was in such demand."
"The Car Book" is available at many book stores. Or to order, write Center for Auto Safety, Dupont Circle Building, Washington, D.C. 20036. Enclose $4.95, plus 55 cents handling charges.