Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Local industrialist foresaw tire problems in '67

In early 1967, Toledoans had a lot on their minds, including the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Few Toledoans knew much about one of the big controversies of the 1960s, which was getting uglier by the day. No, not Vietnam - car safety.

On Jan. 6, 1967, President Johnson named a Toledoan, Chester Devenow, to a 17-member auto-safety advisory council, along with such luminaries as Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers; Thomas Mann, president of the Automobile Manufacturers Association and a former under-secretary of state; and a number of safety experts from academia and industry.

But almost no one in these parts knew about it because The Blade was in the middle of what would become a five-month strike.

The role of Mr. Devenow - then chairman of Toledo's newest Fortune 500 company, Sheller-Globe Corp. - was short-lived. He was among the early advisers to what is now the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, for a term that ended Dec. 30, 1967.

But he says his stint on the safety council comes back to haunt him, especially this year, when 6.5 million Firestone tires were recalled after numerous fatal accidents involving those tires on Ford Motor Co. Explorer sport-utility vehicles.

Mr. Devenow was on the committee that looked at tire standards. He said yesterday he thinks the safety agency didn't follow through on his committee's recommendations to adopt tougher standards, didn't update tire standards for decades, and didn't give tires as high a priority as other safety concerns.

“My argument at the time was that the tire industry was getting off easy. The bureaucrats [in the safety agency] were more interested in the 5-mile-per-hour bumper impact [standards]. Tires were not considered important, but now they've found out how important they can be.”

Auto safety issues came to the forefront in 1966. Activist Ralph Nader was suing General Motors Corp., automotive recalls were in the hundreds of thousands, Congress held safety hearings, and the National Safety Council charged that defects were responsible for a big share of accidents.

The Highway Safety Act of 1966 was one of many to follow. But change didn't happen easily. For months, auto makers said they would be unable to meet the standards in time, or that costs would be prohibitive.

But by 1967, safer autos were on the drawing boards. Among the new features for 1968 and after: collapsible steering wheels, padded dashboards and visors, head rests, and dual braking systems. Even later there would be air bags, antilock brakes, and car bodies engineered to absorb crash impact.

Also among the safety regulations were new requirements for tire tread-wear indicators and permanent sidewall markings showing weight and inflation standards.

But, in retrospect, Mr. Devenow said he thinks they were not enough. And he wasn't alone. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, said in mid-1967 that the new guidelines were “good news” but “not sufficient to meet the standard of safety which the public deserves.”

Mr. Devenow acknowledges that many of the early safety innovations saved many lives. Sheller-Globe made some of the products in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s - including padded visors and consoles, and collapsible steering wheels.

Sheller-Globe was taken over in 1986, and Mr. Devenow soon retired as chairman and chief executive.

Later, he became chief executive of the former Trustcorp, Inc., a bank holding company in the late 1980s was taken over by what is now KeyCorp.

Congress is now considering expanding the safety agency's powers, and the agency itself recently announced it would develop new ways of discovering defects and plans to update its tire standards - the ones adopted in the mid and late 1960s.

Mr. Devenow says it's too little, too late to save hundreds, probably thousands of motorists killed in accidents involving defective or inappropriate tires.

“How many people were hurt by the fact there weren't proper standards?” he asked.

NHTSA had to start from zero in the 1960s, responded Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the agency, adding that he had no comment on recommendations from that era.

“All I can tell you is what's going on now. The process is all absolutely open. It's very open and public.”

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer.

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