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Wednesday, 6 October 1971
Page: 1991

Mr COHEN (Robertson) - I am sure that honourable members will be aware that last weekend saw almost SO Australians killed on the roads. I have been fortunate in the last few days to receive from the United States a report, the foreword of which was written by Ralph Nader, of the Centre for Auto Safety. Thi report is entitled 'The Volkswagen - An Assessment of Distinctive Hazards'. The report commences:

The Volkswagen Beetle is the most hazardous car currently in use in significant numbers in the United States.

This report is a damning indictment of the automobile and its manufacturer. The report points out that Volkswagen is the world's third largest automobile manufacturer. In 1970 its sales were valued at $4.2 billion and totalled 2,211,000 vehicles. The Volkswagen was initially a product of the revolt against the Detroit monsters and was sold to the public as an economic runabout and a second car for the family. The sameness of the vehicle year in and year out was promoted as a virtue. However, it is clear that whatever changes were made were rarely safety related and then only to comply with safety standards set down by the Government. I quote again from the report:

The lack of a consumer movement in Germany and the absence of a critical engineering tradition with access to governmental authority lead to an overwhelming dominance of the corporation over the State in safety matters.

Dr FrederickGoes, chief of auto safety research for VW had this to say:

Government regulations are just another type of technical battle. If they want a padded dash they get it. If they want a sideguard rail, it is no problem to put one in.

However, Nader points out the extent to which VW has gone in the United States to lobby against and defeat proposed safety standard legislation and also to exert pressure on the Detroit giants, General Motors and Ford, to support VW or face economic retaliation by the German Government against their large investments in that country. Nader in his report continued:

Not content with such government timidity in issuing meaningful standards VW exerts strenuous pressure to prevent government crash-testing of VWs and disclosure of the results publicly.

The report then makes the following claim: - The Beetle has many serious design defects which have been responsible for the deaths and injuries of thousands of people. These are deaths which could have been prevented and injuries which could have been reduced in severity had Volkswagen been as aggressive in its safety policies as in its marketing.

It is well known through research that small cars are less crash worthy and subsequently prove injurious to occupants in the event of a crash. However, the VW beetle and the micro-bus seem to be the most dangerous of them all. Dealing in detail with the dangerous handling tendencies of the VW the report lists the following characteristics of the beetle: Directional instability in cross winds; over-steering behaviour, particularly in cornering near the limits of tyre adhesion, and a propensity towards overturning. The research that has been done shows that about 40.6 per cent of Vws involved in accidents overturned whereas the normal rate of overturning was about 30.2 per cent. These characteristics are stated as the reason for the unduly high proportion of single vehicle accidents. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to go into the technical details outlined in the report but the location of the engine in the rear, the centre of pressure being located ahead of the centre of mass, the swing axle rear suspension design and the greater proportion of the car's weight being on the rear wheels causing oversteer and its high centre of gravity and narrow track, make it less stable against roll over. The report also quotes the Consumers Union test survey of a number of small vehicles, and had this to say:

The model that Volkswagen calls the Super Beetle feels little different from the many unsuper Beetles CU has tested . . . Our Super Beetle rode better than have our earlier Beetles, thanks to a re-designed front suspension. But lt was still among the worst-riding cars in this test group.

Chapter III blasts VW for taking 10 years to introduce safety rims for tubeless tyres thus preventing an air-out. Possibly the most frightening section is that headed Out the Rear Window: The VW Ejector Seat'. The report states:

In a collision involving the rear end of the Beetle, the occupant of the seat exerts a strong force against the upper part of the seat back. Using the upper seat back frame rest as a pivot point, the seat back frame becomes a lever which wrenches the seat runner upward and oil its track. When this happens, the seat is no longer attached to any part of the car. The occupant ls now unrestrained and can be thrown backward against the top of the rear seat, the window frame, or even out the rear window . . . Seat belts are of little use in this case since the occupant can slide backward under the belt unhindered.

Dealing with the question of rear end collisions the report said:

Direct evidence of seat failures in rear end collisions was provided by an experiment conducted by UCLA engineering students under the guidance of engineers from the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering. The UCLA team crashed a 1967 Ford Custom sedan into a fully instrumented 1969 Beetle which contained 2 full sized male dummies in the front seats, and 2 smaller dummies in the rear seat. The Ford was driven at 30 mph into the rear end of the stationary VW.

On ' impact, the dummy in the driver's seat pitched backwards, causing the seatback to fail. The dummy then slid backward until its head struck the chest of the dummy directly behind the driver. The dummy in the front position occupied a strengthened VW seat. During the crash, the seat failed and the dummy experienced severe whiplash.

The left rear dummy, simulating the size of a 13-year old, slid along the collapsed seatback, and hit the rear window which popped out without breaking. The dummy's head and shoulders cleared the opening and its head struck the hood of the Ford.

When his seatback failed, the. right rear dummy was also hurtled rearward, and partially out of the rear window opening which the left rear dummy had broken. The right rear dummy's head also struck the hood of the Ford. .

Of this study, VW told its dealers in a confidential memo:

A test on VW seats in rear-end collisions was conducted by UCLA in 1969. VWoA provided cars for the test and they were 'rear-ended' by 1967 full-sized Fords at 30 mph. The back of the VW front seat bent rearward about 30 degrees, but the seat did not leave the track.

This is hardly an accurate description of what happened. The erroneous impression is left that the VW seats performed adequately.

I could go on, if I had more time, and detail the criticism of the. vehicles' shocking door latches. But. I would like to quote from a chapter which is called 'Up In Flames: The Beetle Fuel System'. I remind honourable members of the report brought down by the Traffic Accident Research Unit headed by Dr Henderson in New South Wales, which stated that a high proportion of Volkswagens was involved in accidents in which vehicles burst into flames. It was a much higher proportion than the proportion of Volkswagens to all vehicles on the road. I quote the following from that chapter.

The performance of the Beetle's gasoline storage system in frontend crashes is a serious threat to the vehicle occupants. Several design factors contribute to this deficient performance: Tank location, attachment of the tank to the car, filler neck location, and filler cap design.

All Beetles except the 1971 Super Beetle have the gasoline tank positioned immediately to the rear of the spare tyre. Only the bumper and the hood are in front of the spare tyre, so that sufficiently severe frontal impacts can result in the spare tyre, its wheel and the sheet metal of the wheel well being forced against the gasoline tank. These forces tend to reduce the volume of the tank, building up pressure in the tank. Since gasoline is effectively incompressible, a tank which is nearly full will build up sufficient pressure so that the weakest part of the structure may' yield. The integrity of the enclosure would then be destroyed, allowing gasoline to be released into the luggage compartment or to flow to the pavement.

There is considerably more contained in that chapter. The final remarks are contained in chapter 8, which is headed: 'The Most Dangerous of Them All: The VW Microbus'. It states:

According to extensive data, this vehicle is the most dangerous vehicle by a wide margin which is sold in any significant numbers in the United Slates today. . . Consumers Union (CU) found the acceleration of the VW bus 'so lethargic' that in their estimation it constitutes a safety hazard. Lack of power affects passing ability, uphill performance and safety in merging onto turnpikes.

The most serious safety problem in . the microbus is the lack of occupant protection it offers in front end crashes. Such protection can be provided by incorporation into the vehicle design of sufficient 'crush distance', that is, the length of vehicle structure between the front crash surface and the front seat occupant space. In a crash, this structure collapses and absorbs the forces generated by the crash. While most full sized United States cars provide about 3 feet of collapse distance the VW bus provides 'a scant half foot'.

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