Editorial: Vehicle safety pact a big step

The vehicles attendees of the North American International Auto Show will see in Cobo Center this week are among the safest ever produced.

Sophisticated air bags, traction control, collision warning devices, back-up cameras and a whole host of technology have been added to cars and trucks to protect their occupants.

And yet people still die in automobiles.

Often, the deaths are due to unavoidable accidents, driver error or abuse, or freak events like ice and snow storms that even the most skilled drivers can’t control.

And sometimes people die because of design and production defects that go undetected until it’s too late. Last year saw a number of safety recalls for serious and deadly flaws in ignition systems and air bags.

Automakers recognized that they must do more to protect their customers. The collaboration of 17 of the world’s largest automotive companies and the federal government at the auto show last week to enhance safety efforts is a solid step.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind met with several auto executives: General Motors Co. CEO and Chairwoman Mary Barra, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne, Hyundai Motor America President and CEO David Zuchowski, Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz and others.

They came out of the session pledging to work together on four main pillars: Enhancing and facilitating proactive safety; enhancing analysis and examination of early warning reporting data; maximizing safety recall participation rates, and enhancing automotive cybersecurity.

A detailed strategy for meeting those objectives will come later.

Credit Foxx for pulling the companies together, and for turning the focus to collaborative prevention instead of punitive enforcement.

“It’s always better to prevent crashes or recalls from happening than to have to react to them,” Foxx told The Detroit News, adding there will be many more meetings to come. “If we can turn the corner here, it’s good for everybody.”

The pact also marks a leap for the automakers, whose natural instinct is to secretly guard technological research in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage.

But 17 companies working together with the federal government, sharing expertise, will likely get the industry more quickly to its safety goals than would 17 companies pursuing their own tracks.

It’s a commitment that should reassure consumers that the industry has placed a priority on their safety.