When "60 Minutes" veteran newsman Bob Simon was killed earlier this month while riding in a for-hire Town Car, the crash was regarded as a tragic accident. But an auto safety expert says known hazards in the 2010 Lincoln Town Car, including its recent recall for a steering defect, could have contributed to the crash -- and are still keeping many taxis and town cars unsafe.
Simon, 73, was riding in the back seat through New York City when his driver sideswiped a car in the next lane, swerved to the left and slammed into a line of metal posts in the highway median. The award-winning correspondent was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
It's unclear what exactly caused the crash. Police have said that the vehicle appeared to be accelerating in its last seconds, and that speed may have been a factor in the crash. News reports have noted that Simon's driver, Abdul Reshad Fedahi, had a valid taxi license, but had two traffic violations last year, for disobeying a traffic device and for speeding, and nine cleared license suspensions. He broke his legs and right arm in the crash and was hospitalized. No charges have been filed.
But Byron Bloch, an auto safety expert with 40 years of experience inspecting and testifying on accidents, said a known steering flaw could have led to the initial jolt that preceded the fatal crash of the Town Car -- a vehicle that is commonly used by taxi companies, Uber and private for-hire drivers.
Ford, which owns the Lincoln brand, issued a safety recall notice covering that model year of Town Car in 2013, saying "severe corrosion" of joints could cause the steering column to break apart, "leading to a loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash." The notice specifically targeted cars and trucks in New York and other states where road salt scattered on the roadways can contribute to corrosion.
Ford issued a second recall notice last year for more than 38,000 Town Cars and other vehicles affected by the same issue, saying its fix for the steering column may have been "improperly repaired" during the previous recall. The automaker said in November it was aware of one accident and no injuries connected to the defect.
Ford offered to repair the steering shaft for free, but such automaker recalls are often unseen or disregarded. Nearly a third of recall notices mailed to vehicle owners are ignored, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Ford would not say whether the car was ever inspected or repaired for the defect. A Ford spokesperson said Monday, "We cannot speculate on the cause of this tragic accident."
New York police investigators said Simon was not wearing his lap-and-shoulder seat belt, a common danger in cab accidents. New York is one of the 22 states where rear-seat passengers are not required to wear a seat belt. A bill has been introduced in New York that would require passengers over the age of 16 to wear seat belts in the back seat, but the bill would allow an exemption for taxis, town cars or limos.
When the car stopped, it did so violently, slamming into a metal post installed between the northbound and southbound lanes. In modern traffic design, those kinds of bollards have been replaced by sand-filled plastic barrels, shock-absorbing guardrails and other "crash cushions" that can slow vehicles on impact while still shielding pedestrians and other cars, Bloch said.
The Town Car also lacked airbags that could have deployed to protect rear-seat passengers, though similar safety measures, including side-curtain airbags, have been installed in cheaper vehicles for many years, Bloch said.
Automakers successfully crash-tested rear-seat airbags as far back as 1972, including in Ford's "Experimental Safety Vehicle" program, but have yet to install them in any production vehicle, Bloch said. Rear-seat airbags cost more money, can decrease the mobility of the front seats and present a liability issue for automakers: “If they're installed in only one vehicle but not two or three, and someone is killed, then someone can say, 'Why did you put them in the Taurus, but not in the Town Car?'"
The New York police would not make a crash investigator available for comment, and it's difficult to know whether any one hazard proved a factor in the crash. But Bloch said, "There are deeper questions here, and I hope out of this comes remedial corrective action that could help prevent a future crash."
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