This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 10, 1995
Minivan Safety Concerns
It was an automaker's worst nightmare - a horrific crash that raised serious questions about the safety of one of North America's most popular family vehicles. On a highway just outside of Caledon, Ont., in early March, two young children died when the seat to which they were strapped was thrown out the rear door of a Dodge Caravan that had been struck by two other minivans. The accident was the latest in a series of tragedies that have focused attention on the reliability of rear-door latches on Chrysler minivans. Last week, bowing to intense public pressure, the automaker volunteered to replace the rear-door latches in as many as 4.5 million vans - every Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town and Country built between 1984 and 1994. Chrysler's offer halted an 18-month investigation of minivan safety by U.S. regulators. The unexpected announcement may also have calmed a growing storm with consumers. Said Stan Lemon, general manager of the Craig Hind Dodge Chrysler dealership in Scarborough, Ont.: "We don't feel the vehicle is defective, but we do want to be sure any customer concerns are met."
In Canada, Chrysler minivans continue to be the subject of Transport Canada investigations. Transport Canada information officer Robert Greenslade told Maclean's that, while a recall of minivans is still possible, door-latch failure has been discounted in the 12 investigations his department has completed so far. Two other investigations are continuing, including one into the Caledon accident. For his part, Chrysler Canada spokesman Walt McCall said that "a recall is not likely," and added that even a stronger rear latch would probably not have prevented the Caledon accident. McCall also noted that in at least some of the other accidents, rear-seat passengers were not wearing belts, and the seats, which are removable, had not been properly reinstalled by owners.
Nevertheless, the attention given to the deaths of the two three-year-olds in the Caledon accident was clearly a turning point for Chrysler in the battle for public confidence. After receiving wide coverage in Canada, reports of the crash were broadcast by U.S. television networks; in the two days after the crash, Chrysler counted 26 separate U.S. media reports. The decision to replace the latches voluntarily came three weeks later, even though the company had previously insisted there was no need for such a change. Installing new latches is expected to cost Chrysler about $70 per minivan and the total cost to the company could reach more than $300 million. Chrysler earned $5.2 billion worldwide in 1994 on sales of $73 billion.
In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was satisfied with Chrysler's voluntary recall - although the U.S. watchdog added that it will monitor the replacement program to ensure that the majority of vehicles are upgraded. The American agency has spent the past 18 months investigating 79 Chrysler minivan incidents, involving 87 ejections, 28 deaths and 60 injuries. By voluntarily offering to install new latches, the automaker avoided having to acknowledge a safety problem. That may prove critical in future court cases: according to The New York Times, Chrysler faces 18 product liability lawsuits arising from reported rear-latch failures in the United States.
The controversy over rear latches comes on the heels of a banner year at Windsor, Ont.-based Chrysler Canada. The company leads the field in minivan sales, with two-thirds of its North American production coming from a Windsor assembly plant that runs three shifts a day, seven days a week. Last year, Chrysler sold 71,000 minivans in Canada, well ahead of the 51,000 sold by Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. and General Motors of Canada Ltd.'s 44,000. Despite the many similarities between those vehicles, there are differences in rear-latch design: GM and Ford each make some models of minivans with two rear latches, while Chrysler's models all have one, in the centre of the door.
To ensure that minivan sales do not slump, damage control measures at Chrysler Canada are now in overdrive. Two-page ads ran in newspapers last week, and, on Friday, the company mailed letters to more than 500,000 Canadian minivan owners and set up a toll-free telephone line to answer questions about the availability of new latches. Dealers say those measures should help owners and buyers who were confused by last week's announcement. The company is anxious to reassure buyers, for example, that the new, stronger latches have already been fitted as original equipment in 1995 model-year Chrysler minivans, which have been in showrooms since October. And the 1996 models, which are scheduled to go on sale in July, feature an entirely redesigned rear door.
Replacement of the old latches is expected to take up to a year, as suppliers struggle to meet the unexpected demand. Last week, Lemon said that sales at his Scarborough lot are steady and Chrysler minivans still account for about 30 of the 100 cars and trucks he sells in an average month. Added Kim Benstead, sales manager at Winnipeg's Pembina Dodge Chrysler Ltd., "Initially, we had a lot of calls - that's now down to just a few. People seem to be comfortable with what is being done." To fully restore consumer faith, however, the company will have to demonstrate that its minivans can steer clear of further accidents.
Maclean's April 10, 1995