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SUA and the carwash industry

June 02, 2011
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Editor's Note: Doug Newman has owned and operated a multiple location carwash and fast oil change business in the Connecticut counties of Fairfield and New Haven. He has been active in the carwash industry for over 22 years and has served on the boards of the Connecticut Carwash Association, the Northeast Carwash Group and the International Carwash Association.

For the last few years, Newman has extensively researched and tracked incidents of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) at carwash locations. In 2008, he created a website devoted to the issue and in 2010, he encouraged operators to write to their local representatives about SUA.

Sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) is the unintended, unexpected, uncontrolled acceleration of a vehicle from a stationary position, low initial speed or at cruising speed, often accompanied by an apparent loss of braking effectiveness. [1] It is often unclear whether problems are caused by driver error, mechanical or electrical problems with automobiles, or some combination of these factors.

However in March 1997, almost 14 years ago, SUA involving Jeep Grand Cherokees was investigated by Diane Sawyer in an ABC News Primetime segment and the "phenomenon" still exists today. The International Carwash Association (ICA) president (at the time) and owner/operator of Jet Stream Carwash in Fond du Lac, WI, Walt Tack, was interviewed for the Primetime segment.

This article is a summary overview of my history regarding Jeep Grand Cherokee SUA or sudden acceleration incidents (SAI). I have been researching Jeep SUA for over 11 years and subsequently have amassed numerous research documents, consumer incident reports, news stories, etc., all of which are publicly available. I have also had dozens of first-hand accounts and digital video clips of Jeep SUA incidents reported to me.

SUA incidents involving many different types of vehicle makes and models have been reported in numerous environments — parking garages, bank drive-up tellers, airports, home garages, traffic lights, mechanic shops, etc., and may have been caused by driver error (pedal misapplication), pedal entrapment or as I and many qualified engineers believe in the case of Jeep Grand Cherokees, mechanical failure.

I have owned and operated a multiple location, conveyor carwash business for 22 years. To that end, my experience and knowledge of SAI is skewed to the carwash industry, however in no way whatsoever are SAI exclusive to the carwash industry, as incidents have occurred and been reported in just about all types of environments.

Over my 22-year career in the conveyor carwash industry, my businesses have collectively washed a few million vehicles. During this time frame and number of vehicles washed, I have experienced just four SUA incidents at my locations and all four -- 100 percent of the SUA incidents -- involved Jeep Grand Cherokees that suddenly accelerated upon start-up after going through the carwash.

I know of another carwash operator who has washed several times the number of cars as my locations (let’s say ten million cars washed) who reports nine cases of SUA over his career in the carwash industry; seven of the nine involved a Jeep Grand Cherokee and two of these were Jeep-related incidents which resulted in fatalities.

Combined, the two of us have experienced 13 SUA incidents and 11 of the 13 incidents, out of the 12 million plus cars that we have collectively serviced, involved the Jeep Grand Cherokee; quite simply, statistically impossible if human error. The highly disproportionate number of SUA incidents involving Jeep Grand Cherokees as compared to all other makes/models combined, undoubtedly calls for a very serious and thorough investigation by governmental agencies.

A few years ago I created a website so I could post information and share it publicly. Thanks to the Internet and the viral ability to spread news, I recently came across a YouTube video clip that used pictures and videos taken from my website. This clip has already been viewed over 6,000 times in just several months. My intention with the website was and is to simply share information, however it has become a resource for dozens of folks who have experienced a Jeep SAI and many have contacted me seeking guidance as if I was an authority (to be clear, I am not).

As I learned of more Jeep SAIs, I found it increasingly difficult to “sit on it” and not attempt to get the information into the hands of the general public, media sources and the appropriate governmental agencies. My “formal” activism in this regard began in 2002 when I presented my knowledge of Jeep Grand Cherokee SAI to the ICA Board which was a bit of a controversial issue. I owe the then ICA President Mike Black a personal thank you for putting this item on the Board Meeting Agenda.

In February 2006, a carwash customer was killed and an employee injured at a Hamden, CT, carwash. The vehicle involved -- you guessed it -- a Jeep Grand Cherokee that suddenly accelerated upon start-up. Following this tragic accident, I pressured the ICA Board to “take swift action." I credit the ICA Board for hosting a special session at its 2006 annual tradeshow and convention to discuss SUA which took place just several weeks after the Connecticut incident.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing published a very informative article: Carwash owners demand action on Jeep sudden acceleration, as well as a follow-up article, Jeep's a comin' through! which said, “It was clear from response at the [ICA] session the sudden acceleration problem still existed and was causing concern in the industry. The ICA has formed the Sudden Unintended Acceleration Advisory Group to help formulate association policy and a response to the incidents”.

In the midst of the fallout from the February 2006 fatality, I sought the assistance of my local State Representative, Patrica Widlitz, and was successful in obtaining Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, to call for a NHTSA investigation into Jeep SUA. In June 2006, Blumenthal formally announced the call for a NHTSA investigation at my Milford, CT, location and invited the several media sources that included remote television broadcasting trucks, newscasters, reporters, etc.

At that time I had several discussions with an ABC News producer in New York City in hopes of getting this story on national television again. To date my efforts have not been successful.

Fast forward to the major international news surrounding Toyota’s acceleration incidents several months ago in early 2010. I connected with Margaret Fisk at Bloomberg News who co-authored a great article, Ford Had 20 Acceleration Deaths as Regulators Cited Human Error. The first paragraph of the article read:

“U.S. regulators have tracked more deaths in vehicles made by Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and other companies combined than by Toyota Motor Corp. during three decades of unintended acceleration reviews that often blamed human error. Fifty-nine of 110 fatalities attributed to sudden acceleration in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records occurred in vehicles other than those sold by Toyota, whose recalls have drawn widespread attention to the issue, according to data compiled for Bloomberg News by the NHTSA”.

When Fisk interviewed me for the article, she followed-up with an emailed question; “Did I ever contact NHTSA?” My answer to her, “Great question and no, I never contact NHTSA because I (falsely) assumed they worked very closely with the Automotive Insurance Industry and routinely analyze industry claim data to quickly spot potential defects. I also assumed that the Automotive Insurance Industry would openly share their claim data as they have the (profit) motivation to reduce claims; after all don’t they all invest heavily in Loss Prevention Departments to do this sort of analysis? Relying on a few hundred individual citizens over a period of a few years to file reports with NHSTA to eventually uncover a potential vehicle defect is truly an archaic process. Yet Ray LaHood has the audacity to tell Toyota during a congressional hearing that ‘their business model is broken.’”

I believe that the public needs to be fully informed via mass, national media sources of the SUA history specifically as it relates to Jeep Grand Cherokees in spite of its popularity.

While SAIs occur in many different types of settings and environments, with many different makes/models of vehicles, and some incidents I'm sure are caused by human error, it is a fact that SUA incidents that have occurred at conveyor carwashes involve Jeep Grand Cherokees at a rate of occurrence that is extraordinarily high and wildly disproportionate when compared in totality to all vehicle makes and models serviced at conveyor carwashes.

The most popular vehicle make/models sold in the U.S., and therefore the most popular vehicles serviced by carwashes, are the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and the Ford Taurus. We can assume these makes/models are washed in far greater frequency than Jeep Grand Cherokees, yet the number of SUA incidents involving these makes and models, even when combined, pale in comparison to the rate of occurrence of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

I am amazed at the public lashing Toyota endured last summer while SAI involving Jeep Grand Cherokees far outnumber Toyotas. Congress successfully put Toyota in its crosshairs, sales of Toyota vehicles fell sharply and the big three U.S. auto manufactures gladly picked-up Toyota’s lost sales. Then while Toyota publicly admits it’s problems and calls for the largest vehicle recall in automotive history, Jeep (which is owned by the U.S. government) sits on its hands only to cite driver error time-and-time again and steadfastly will not release its proprietary PCM module software for independent, third-party review.

My altruistic vision has not allowed me to believe in government conspiracies, but I truly wonder about this one; where is the Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood (who crucified Toyota) and where is NHTSA as it relates to the Jeep Grand Cherokee?

At least U.S. House Representative Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was quoted as saying, “There needs to be fundamental reform at NHTSA.,” Mr. Waxman said. “As I look at the record, it’s not a happy one. It’s not a successful one."

And his official Congressional statement concluded with, “Ultimately, I believe addressing this problem will require legislation. Carmakers have entered the electronics era, but NHTSA seems stuck in a mechanical mindset. We need to make sure the federal safety agency has the tools and resources it needs to ensure the safety of the electronic controls and on-board computers that run today’s automobiles."

But of course the auto companies are lobbying hard to prevent such legislation to provide NHTSA with the necessary resources; what are they afraid of? Just recently reported in a New York Times article, Consumer Groups Criticize Automakers Over Safety Legislation (Jensen, 2010) “It is unfortunate that rather than getting on board, the automakers have chosen to take this stance,” said Ami Gadhia, the policy counsel for auto safety at Consumers Union. Ms. Gadhia said the need to provide the agency [NHTSA] with more resources was clear earlier this year during Congressional hearings on unintended acceleration in Toyotas.

On an individual basis, many carwash operators have taken different types of actions regarding Jeep SUA. At my businesses for example we incorporated a specific Jeep Grand Cherokee Policy Page into our new hire packet that all employees review with the General Manager and both sign that such review of this policy took place. This policy states that you (the employee) are restricted from operating Jeep Grand Cherokees, period and only once they have gone through a very specific training program, which only our most experienced employees go through, can they then operate Jeep Grand Cherokees. I know of a few operators who stopped washing Jeep Grand Cherokees all together.

I have asked for statements from a few conveyor carwash operators, a reverse engineer, a carwash insurance agent and an attorney in regards to their experiences with Jeep Sudden Acceleration Incidents.

Justin Alford, Benny's Car Wash, Baton Rouge, LA
The Alford family has been in the carwash business since 1951 and currently own and operate five conveyor carwashes (two full-service and three express), five lube shops, three gas stations, and have our fourth conveyor wash under construction.

“Approximately five years ago, we stopped washing all Jeep Grand Cherokees. We are fortunate to have never had a sudden acceleration incident with a Jeep, but we made the decision to stop washing Jeeps at our full service carwashes because of the high number of incidents we learned of from other parts of the country.

“We have a large number of employees who work around the exit-end of our full service washes and just did not want to take risk of anyone getting hurt. Until there is a solution to the Jeep problem, our company is not going to wash them.

“When customers ask us why we direct them to our website, to read information about the incidents around the country. Our family run business places the safety of our customers and employees first. It is just not worth the risk based on the information and data we are aware of."

David Bizzak, a forensic engineer and partner in the Pennsylvania based firm, Romualdi, Davidson & Associates, Inc.
Bizzak, in my opinion, is one of the foremost experts regarding Jeep SAI. He has been investigated sudden acceleration incidents for 16 years and provided courtroom testimony in three Jeep sudden acceleration cases. In 2002, David Bizzak and Walt Salyer of InfoSpace co-authored a Jeep SAI Defect Petition to NHTSA. As part of his investigations, he has examined numerous vehicles, statistically analyzed customer complaint data and conducted on-vehicle tests to support his conclusions that human error is not the sole and proximate cause of all SAIs. Bizzak’s firm’s website (Romualdi, Davidson & Associates, Inc.)

“Sudden Acceleration Incidents (SAIs) involving Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee vehicles began in the early 1990s. The number of such incidents was staggering; approximately 1 in 1,500 owners of the 1993-1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee reported experiencing a sudden acceleration. Despite the large number of such events and national media attention, NHTSA failed to take any action once Chrysler agreed to institute a voluntary safety campaign to retrofit vehicles with a brake transmission shift interlock (BTSI).

“This "fix" did not eliminate the problem, but changes to the powertrain control electronic and speed control appeared to reduce the frequency of the problem, beginning with the 1996 model year. However, sudden acceleration resurfaced as a problem with the Grand Cherokee. Many 2003 model year and later vehicles were involved in sudden acceleration incidents that caused serious injury or death.

“None of these events, however, has received the level of media attention of sudden acceleration events involving Toyotas. It is well past the time that NHTSA needs to seriously evaluate the role of electronic system defects and/or malfunctions as the cause of SAI. I believe that sufficient evidence exists to indicate that these events are not caused by operator error or floor mat interference, as NHTSA and the auto manufacturers have historically maintained."

Bruce Milen, 47 year Carwash Operator and President of Jax Kar Wash based in Southfield, Michigan
Milen operates seven conveyor carwash locations today. He has served on the ICA Board of Directors from 1976 through 1983 and is a past president of the Association.

“Our first experience with SUA was with the Audi 5000 in 1982. We had three incidents at our locations over a two-year period and of course, there was no SUA history or information for any vehicles. The Audi story is well known and after a few years of problems it was determined that Audi had a significant problem and eventually they stopped manufacturing that particular vehicle. That is the first time that we discovered a SUA pattern with certain vehicles and that is was a real problem.

“Then in the mid 90’s and we started to have problems with Jeep Grand Cherokee. Over a period of four years we had four or five incidents at our locations, some serious and others not so. This sudden unintended acceleration problem was specific to the Jeep Grand Cherokee make/model and each incident report we received from our location managers were oddly similar.

“Our employee started the vehicle in neutral as it came off the conveyor and it would then suddenly accelerate at a very high RPM. Brakes were applied (and reports of brake lights being on too) but did not slow the vehicle and another SUA pattern had developed.

“From time-to-time we have had other problems with other vehicles caused by human error, but there was no similar pattern where the car would suddenly and unexpectedly accelerate upon start-up in neutral like the Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

Tom Murray, an attorney from Ohio, has been handling sudden acceleration cases for over fifteen years. His firm, Thomas J. Murray & Associates, exclusively handles SAI cases.
Murray has successfully argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and is a member of both the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and the International Society of Barristers. He has spent the last three years writing a book that will expose the fraud of the car companies in blaming floor mats and drivers for sudden acceleration accidents, and detailing NHTSA's complicity in the deception. From the very beginning, Murray and his cadre of experts have pointed the finger at electromagnetic interference (EMI) as the cause of SAIs. He has coordinated “The Sudden Acceleration Info Group” comprised of lawyers, legal experts, engineers, consumer advocates, and researchers which maintains a very informative website (Sudden Acceleration Information Group).

"Since 1985, the Federal government has known that EMI poses a serious danger to automotive safety, and sudden acceleration is only one example of that danger. Since moisture is a well-known facilitator of EMI, it's not surprising that so many sudden acceleration incidents occur during and after car wash cycles.

“Obviously, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is unusually susceptible to an electronic malfunction caused by moisture. This is likely the result of insufficient shielding of wires and/or electronic circuits, or no shielding at all.

“Of course, what all of these vehicles lack is a proper failsafe. A brake override is inadequate because it relies on the driver. A true failsafe should remove the driver from the equation. Until there is a robust, independent failsafe in these vehicles, SAIs will continue to occur."

Mike Benmosche, Carwash Program Manager, National Car Wash Program, Mang Insurance Agency, Saratoga Springs.
Benmosche has been a carwash insurance agent for 16 years and insured my locations for several years. Here are some questions I asked and his answers:

Doug Newman: How many Jeep SUA claims have you handled over your career in the car wash industry?

Mike Benmosche: Several but I can recall five incidents without looking through my old files that involved a reported claim. I do know of one other property damage incident that was not Jeep related where a good deal of property damage occurred. I recall one of your incidents, where you took care of the damage. In that case I believe the Jeep jumped a curb and came to rest in some shrubs and your long-time customer was understanding and allowed you to detail the car and accepted some complimentary carwashes.

DN:Have you had to handle any Jeep SUA claims for your clients that involved significant personal injuries or fatalities?

MB:Sadly, yes. I have been involved in three claims that involved fatalities; two carwash employees and one customer. All three of these claims involved Jeep Grand Cherokees and occurred at the exit-end of the carwash. Two were driven by the customer; one was driven by a very experienced employee.

DN: How much in total claims would you estimate were paid by insurance carries on behalf of your clients that involved Jeep Grand Cherokees SUA?

MB: In excess of $2,000,000. That does not include additional payments that may have been made by the auto manufacturer or other entities involved.

DN: What else can you add. For example, has the time come to exclude Jeep Grand Cherokees from insurance policies or should or should operators stop washing them?

MB: I think the time has come for Chrysler to assist in a safety campaign to educate the public on the dangers associated with the rapid, unintended acceleration. The devastation caused by these accidents is beyond words. The injuries and loss of life warrants a major campaign to educate everyone about the risks. This needs to be done over and over again to emphasis the seriousness of this problem. I don't believe it is realistic to avoid washing them, but I am convinced it can be done more safely and Chrysler should be part of that solution.

I could write much more as it pertains to my experience with Jeep SUA and could obtain dozens or quotes from other individuals but will conclude with this. I will not rest until the Jeep Grand Cherokee Sudden Unintended Acceleration “phenomenon” is reported by a national television or newspaper. If you can assist with that process, not only would I be grateful but so would thousands of innocent individuals and families whose lives have forever been tragically altered because of a Jeep Grand Cherokee Sudden Acceleration Incident.

[1] NHTSA 1989: An Examination of Sudden Acceleration

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