Category Archives: NHTSA

Confessions of a Sore Loser

If  there was such a thing as Sore Losers Anonymous, I could go to the meeting and say, “Hi, I’m Jack and I’m a sore loser.”  Then everyone would say, “Hi Jack.”  But there is no such thing.  I know, because I Googled it!

I told my son, Paul, that I was going to write on being a sore loser, and he said, “Dad, if you need any material, just let me know.”

When I was a little kid, I would bring my bat and ball to the neighborhood games.  If I were unhappy with how the game was going (or someone called me out, when I knew I was safe), I would take my bat and ball and go home.

When I was nine, we went on a vacation in the Ozarks.  My uncle, Bob, challenged me to a checker game.  What a fool.  Didn’t he know that I was the world’s greatest checker champion?  Some how he started jumping all my pieces.  I was furious.  I had three checkers in my hand.  They were made out of Bakelite (one of the early plastic products).  And before I knew it, I had crushed the pieces.  That was really dumb, because with the pieces broken, I couldn’t get a rematch.

Like many kids, I played sports all year round and my philosophy was that if you treat every game like a life or death struggle, you would lose less ofter.  There may be a grain of truth in that approach, but you end up as a basket case when you lose.  Sometimes I would blame the officials, sometimes I would blame my team mates.  One time I decided it was my fault.  But then I decided I was wrong!

Somewhere in my fifties, I had lost a sufficient number of times to where I realized it wasn’t the end of the world.  I retired from the Army and took an appointment as Chief Counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Department of Transportation.  After I had been there a short while, one of my attorneys advised me that our office had a softball team and that we played the other offices in NHTSA.  I agreed to play with them.

Boy, were we bad.  And with no umpires, long drives down the foul line seemed to end up in long arguments.  At the end of our third game, I got into an angry argument with someone from the Planning Office.  I finally realized that I was no longer 12 and walked away.  The next morning, both of us sought the other out and apologized.

Later that afternoon, I gathered all the Chief Counsel players into the conference room and told them I had some good news and some bad news.  The good news was that as people grew older they mellowed and became less aggressive.  The bad news was that I had already passed through that phase and was still pretty bad.

I seriously considered not playing, but decided on a three-step philosophy.  First, don’t get hurt.  Second, don’t show your backside.  And lastly, if you can do the first two, then, by all means, win.

Is anybody up for a game of checkers with a former world champion?

Written by PJ Rice at

Copyright 2017


Why I Will Never Buy an Audi

No, it’s not the commercials.  I like watching commercials, but I don’t think I would stop drinking Coke because their commercial offended me.  The old Snickers’ commercial where a “Snickers deprived person” destroyed other people’s property offended me, but I never stopped eating Snickers.  Now, Snickers has a commercial where Roseanne Barr gets clobbered by a great big swinging log.  I kind of like that one.

I don’t care for the Audi commercials, but that’s not my reason for not buying the car.  I do, however, believe the commercials reflect the arrogance of the company.  The commercial I’m thinking of depicts the owners of Mercedes, Lexus and BMW as mindless sheep following the pack.  While the owners of Audis are superior people who are able to think and decide for themselves.  I thought the arrogance of the commercial reflected the arrogance of the company.

Back in the mid-80s, the Audi 5000 received a lot of bad publicity when the owners claimed the cars were subject to suddenly accelerating for no good reason.  I’m satisfied that the sudden acceleration wasn’t Audi’s fault.  It was later determined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the cause of the problem was “pedal misapplication” (the drivers were stepping on the gas pedal and not the brake pedal – and guess what, the harder they pushed, the faster they went).  Even though Audi did not feel responsible, they did move the gas pedal and the brake pedal a little farther apart.  They were also one of the first companies to put in a brake interlock system, so that the driver could not shift out of park until he had his foot on the brake.

The problem with the sudden acceleration fiasco was that Audi wasn’t quick enough to respond.  It doesn’t matter if you have an engineering masterpiece if no one is buying the car.  Duh!  Their arrogance kept them from being proactive.

I want to digress for a moment.  Don’t worry, I will tell you why I will never buy an Audi.  But I want to mention something that keeps auto manufacturers from quickly improving safety features.  It is product liability law suits.  If the manufacturer is being sued over, let’s say a stablility/rollover issue, then, if they widen their wheel base, the plaintiff’s attorney will point to that change as proof that the earlier model was unsafe.  Product liability law suits are like a game where fair play is off the table.

It was late in the year 2000 and I had just been hired by Bridgestone/Firestone to assist them in their major tire problem.  The Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires were involved in accidents where the tread had separated from the tire.  Since I was representing the company, they asked me to assist them in a small problem they were having with tires on the Audi TT.

The Audi TT was, and probably still is, a neat little sports car.  Bridgestone provided the high performance tires for the TT (225/45R-17/91Y).  They were quite wide, but the distance from the tread to the rim was only about three inches.  This only became a problem when the driver sped through a deep pot hole.  This could cause the sidewall to pinch the rim and cause a bubble or blister on the tire.  In Europe, where the tires had been around for years, the driver would recognize that he had abused the tire and go out and purchase a new one.  In the United States, the driver would return to the dealer and claim the tire was defective. 

I think both Audi and Bridgestone knew there was nothing wrong with the tires, but Audi wanted to have a meeting to discuss the problem and, quite frankly, Bridgestone wanted to help their customer.  The meeting was set up in Washington at 11:30 AM at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.  I attended the meeting along with the account sales executive and a senior Bridgestone engineer. 

When we arrived in Audi’s reception area, we could see that another meeting was going on in the glass enclosed conference room.  We got comfortable and waited.  Around noon, the meeting was still proceeding and catering carts arrived from some eating establishment probably buried somewhere in the enormous building.  I thought, hey, I may get a free lunch out of this.  Free lunches are good.  The meeting broke up about 12:30 PM.  The Audi officials came out and greeted us and then disappeared for a few minutes.  Lunch was wheeled into the conference room.  Things were really looking up.  Then, the Audi officials came back, proceeded into the conference room, closed the door and ate their lunch for the next 45 minutes.  We got to watch.  I would have settled for a slice of cheese.  Hey, are you going to eat that pickle? 

We started our meeting about 1:30 PM.  The meeting went as expected.  Everyone agreed there was nothing wrong with the tires and Bridgestone agreed to assist Audi in replacing damaged tires at no cost to the costumers.  Of course, nothing was said about the shabby way we were treated.  Because of their superior attitude, it probably never occurred to them that the peasants had to eat too. 

It is hard to be politically correct when dealing with such jerks.  I will just say that in the United States Army we make sure the troops are fed.  And we have been pretty successful.  Is that subtle enough?  As I have grown older, I have mellowed.  I now will agree to ride in the back seat of an Audi, as long as I am being chauffeured by an Audi executive.

Written by PJ Rice at

Governor William Donald Schaefer (1921-2011)

The State of Maryland lost a real character last week.  Former Governor Schaefer died April 18, 2011.  He was Governor from 1987 to 1995.  Prior to that he had been the Mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to 1986.

As the Mayor of Baltimore he was responsible for turning the Baltimore Inner Harbor into an exciting tourist attraction.  When the National Aquarium of Baltimore opened in 1981, Schaefer showed up in a 1920’s bathing suit.

I only met him once.  We were holding a General Law Spring Conference of the ABA in Annapolis.  Schaefer hosted a small group of us for cocktails in the governor’s mansion.  He spoke to us for a short while.  I don’t remember anything he said, but I came away thinking that he was impressive and humorous.  He stood on the steps leading upstairs and we were gathered in a hallway below.  I remember him introducing a woman to us who was not his wife.  This confused me, but I confused easily.

I suspect Governor Schaefer didn’t know I was there.  Yet, it was only a few years later when he wrote to the Secretary of Transportation, Andy Card about me.  He advised Andy to keep a close eye on me because I was a troublemaker.  He probably didn’t realize that I had had the opportunity earlier to swipe his silver, but had left the mansion with only my bride.

The problem came up in June of 1992 when the Maryland legislature passed a gas guzzler tax.  New cars with terrible gas mileage (gas guzzlers) would pay a high tax when purchased.  New cars with excellent gas milage would pay a much smaller tax.

I was Chief Counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and we were responsible for regulating Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) for the automobile industry.  When Congress gave us that authority, it also prohibited states from coming up with their own plans.  You can see how frustrating it would be for the auto industry if each state could set its own fuel economy standards.

So I wrote a letter to Maryland’s Attorney General, Joseph Curran, Jr. explaining that their gas guzzler tax flew in the face of the Congressional mandate that the Federal government would regulate fuel economy.  I realized that what Maryland had done was embarrassing, but I thought it was to their advantage to learn about their mistake as soon as possible.

Wow!  I soon learned that when politics is involved, nothing is clear.  From reading the Baltimore Sun, you would have thought that I was assembling troops just inside the DC border, getting ready to invade the State of Maryland.  Then State Senator Chris Van Hollen accused the Bush Administration of attempting to take away Maryland’s taxing authority (In a later life, Chris and I were partners at Arent Fox).  I was interviewed on National Public Radio (our tax dollars at work) wanting to know why the Federal government was prohibiting the sovereign State of Maryland from exercising their tax authority.  I got the feeling that Van Hollen had written the questions.  I explained that I had no problem with Maryland taxing whatever they wanted, as long as it didn’t, in fact, regulate fuel economy.

Attorney General Curran told the press that the law might have to be tweaked.  Give me a break.  The gas guzzler tax was dead on arrival.  It had run out of fuel.

Then Secretary Card received a letter from Governor Schaefer blasting me as a troublemaker.  Maybe I should have swiped his silver.  By that time I had adopted P. T. Barnum’s approach to notoriety, “I don’t care what you say.  Just spell my name right.”

This is how the bureaucracy works.  When the Secretary’s office received the letter from Governor Schaefer regarding a NHTSA matter, they send it to NHTSA to prepare a response for the Secretary’s signature.  When NHTSA sees that the letter involves a legal matter, they send it to the office of the Chief Counsel for a response.  So guess who got to answer Governor Schaefer’s letter?  Yours truly.  I know that you are not the least surprised that Secretary Card thought that Paul Jackson Rice was doing an outstanding job as Chief Counsel.

Written by PJ Rice on

Child Seat Safety and the Plight of the Manufacturer

The question I have is why would anyone want to manufacture child safety seats?  It makes about as much sense as being a bull rider.  Bull riding probably makes more sense, because they are quite popular and do very well with the ladies, until they get stomped on a few times.  Child seat manufacturers need only look forward to being stomped.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think child seats are wonderful.  Any parent who doesn’t put their infant in a child seat should have their head examined.  Child safety seats save lives.  But, manufacturers take on great risks in selling them.

First, the seat has to comply with Federal standards.  There’s a crash test to ensure the seat and child will survive a crash.  There are buckle tests to ensure that buckles don’t open too easily, but will open after a crash.  They need to have appropriate hardware which will attach to the cars they are put in.  Those clasps have to be able to withstand so many pounds of pressure that might occur in a crash.  The straps have to pass strength tests and all the fabrics have to pass stringent flammability tests.

Is that so unreasonable?  I don’t think so.  The manufactures accept the requirements as their responsibility.  They want to make a safe product.  They test their seats to ensure that they comply with all the requirements.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for setting the standards.  When I was Chief Counsel for the agency, we tested every new seat to every standard.  We were hyper over child seat safety.  If there was a problem, usually the manufacturer stepped up and recalled the product.  But, some manufacturers just stopped making child seats.

Then, there’s the litigation involved in child seats.  If there is a crash and a child secured in a child seat is injured, you can pretty much bet on a law suit.  It doesn’t matter how many cars were involved, or the speed of the vehicles, or the direction of impact, the company will be sued.  Litigation is one of our national pastimes.  While some times it is definitely justified, many times it is not.

I remember a case where a man’s wife died when she rolled the car and it went off an overpass.  It landed on its roof.  He sued the car manufacturer because the air bag didn’t deploy.  Then there was the one where the woman decided to commit suicide by locking herself in the trunk of her car.  After a few days, she changed her mind.  But, she couldn’t get out.  She was eventually found and survived.  She sued the car manufacturer and recovered.  I guess there should have been a warning in the trunk.

After I left NHTSA, I joined Arent Fox and had the opportunity to represent child seat manufacturers.  Century Products made a great infant seat called the 590.  It was the best selling infant seat.  The base stayed hooked in the car while the infant seat lifted out and acted as a carrier for the child.  Century had never received a complaint regarding separation of the base and the seat in a crash.  Not bad.  But, not good enough.

One day, back in 1995, Consumers Union notified Century that they had crash tested the 590 and that it had failed.  The tests had taken place a few months earlier, but Consumers Union kept the results secret from Century.  They wanted to splash the story in their Consumer Reports magazine.  CU also petitioned NHTSA to recall the 590 for being defective.  Well NHTSA eventually denied CU’s petition, but not soon enough to save the 590.  Life isn’t fair.

I question the motives of Consumers Union, who is suppose to be the friend of the consumer, but conceals safety testing for months.  If their testing showed a safety concern, shouldn’t they quickly notify the manufacturer, or the government or the public?

If I were going to buy a vacuum cleaner or a toaster, I might look at what Consumer Reports had to say.  Then again, maybe I wouldn’t.  But, if we are talking about a product where there is dynamic testing, such as a car seat, or an automobile, I wouldn’t trust Consumers Union.  I don’t think they are qualified and they are too interested in a dramatic story. 

Back in 1996 or 97, I went into a Ford dealership to get some literature on the Ford Explorer.  Some tall skinny dude in a cowboy hat told me they didn’t have any material to give me, but that the Explorer was ranked number one in Consumer Reports.  I got out of there and saved myself and family from being part of the rollover debacle.

Let me get back to my child safety seat proposal.  And it has nothing to do with Consumers Union trying to play the Wizard of Oz.  If a product is mandated by the government (as child seats are in most states), and the Federal government specifies safety requirements for the product, then meeting or exceeding those safety requirements should preclude product liability law suits that attempt to hold the manufacturer to some different standard.  Now there’s some Congressional legislation I could live with and it wouldn’t cost the government any money.

Leaping from the Army to Politics

How does an Army Officer obtain a political appointment from the White House?  The answer is, “not easily.”  I have previously mentioned that I retired from the Army to take a political job at the Department of Transportation.  What I haven’t mentioned is how unnerving the experience was.  I had never been involved in politics and even though I was over 50 years of age, I was a babe in a totally foreign environment.

Major General Jerry Curry had been appointed as the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by the first President Bush.  I was his lawyer at V Corps and he called me at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to see if I was interested in being his Chief Counsel.  We had been at Fort Leavenworth for a little over four months.  The phone call alone had generated anxiety and tension in the Rice household.  I had made a few calls to friends back in DC and they had said I would be a fool not to try for the job.  As for political credentials, I was told to go out and get an elephant tattooed on my butt.

After a few days, I called General Curry and told him that I felt I needed to come back to Washington and talk to him.  He said the first thing I needed to do was put a resume together and send it to him.  He would float it around and if it was acceptable, then I could come out for interviews.  A resume should be one page, two at the most.  I was so clueless that I prepared an eight page resume that included such gems as I had been a legal assistance office at Fort Hood, Texas, 27 years earlier.  I suspect no one read the resume, but Curry did call and told me to come out for interviews.

It was to be a one day trip.  Interviews in the morning and afternoon and lunch with Curry.  I went out and bought a suit (I didn’t own one) and purchased my airline ticket.  When I arrived at DOT, I was a little early so I stopped by the DOT Eatery to get something to drink and comb my hair.  When I went into the men’s room to spruce up, I discovered a homeless man taking a bath at the sink.  While it now seems humorous, at the time, it just confirmed that I was totally out of my element.

The interviews in the morning were with the DOT General Counsel, Phil Brady, and his deputy, Lindy Knapp.  They dealt with my legal background and I thought they went well.  I had been a regulatory law specialist in the Army and the Chief Counsel’s position required a regulatory law background.

At lunch, General Curry told me that he was concerned about my afternoon interview with the DOT White House Liaison Officer.  Then he told me that at the end of the interview I was to ask if I had the job.  I thought, “Whoa, I can’t to that!”  It just seemed too aggressive.  What I didn’t realize was that there was a history between General Curry and my interviewer.  If I had asked, he would have been afraid to say no (but, I just wasn’t going to ask).

When I arrived at the Office of the Secretary for my interview, I was told that the White House Liaison Officer was tied up and that I should reschedule for another day.  I made it clear that I was from out of town, flew in for the interview and it needed to happen.  Eventually the secretary told me to have a seat and they would see if they could work me in.  I could just feel everything falling apart.

After waiting for what seemed like hours, I was taken in to see the White House Liaison Officer.  It was a small office and the proprietor looked younger than my children.  I found myself looking at a kid who had joined the political campaign right out of college and his candidate had won.  He was entitled to a position in the Administration.  I think this is true regardless of which party wins.

He didn’t apologize for the delay.  For the first ten to 15 minutes, he talked with reverence about Secretary Sam Skinner and how fortunate the country was to have him as the Secretary of Transportation.  I was satisfied that this young bespectacled lad, with thinning hair, believed every word he was saying.  He told me that when Secretary Skinner entered a room the energy level in that room was immediately pumped up.  He mentioned an energy level percentage, but I seemed to have misplaced it.  I was satisfied his energy level had skyrocketed.

Sort of as an afterthought, he asked me about my qualifications.  I started telling him about my career and he interrupted.  He wanted to know what I had done to help in the presidential campaign.  I told him I had been on active duty and was prohibited form being involved in the campaign.  He just shook his head.  The interview stumbled along.  We were going through the motions.  I was trying, but couldn’t pump up the energy level.  Finely, he said, “Frankly Jack, it will be an uphill battle taking your file over to the White House.”  I responded by saying, “Just knowing that you are willing to recommend me gives me hope.”  He immediately said, ” I didn’t say I was recommending you.”  I responded, “That’s right, you didn’t.”

We just sat there (the energy level definitely pumped up).  He realized that he had tipped his hand and I would be telling General Curry that he was not recommending me.  He was really distressed.  I had gotten the answer to Curry’s question without asking.  Suddenly, the interview started over.  He asked questions like when would I be able to start to work, and how much pay did I expect.  We had turned a corner.

Later that afternoon, I interviewed at the White House.  Guess who had been coaching me on what to say?  The interview went well.  The White House personnel officer was more interested in whether I could do the job, rather than what I had done in the presidential campaign.  I reported back to General Curry and caught my flight home.

I have often reflected on how lucky I had been to get the answer to the question I wasn’t going to ask.  If I hadn’t been lucky, I would have understood too late that the question needed to be asked.