On the morning of Dec. 16, 1982, Ford Motor Co. engineer Stephen Kozak was driving to Ford's assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., for a special assignment. He never arrived.
A large Plymouth Fury sedan smashed into the passenger side of Kozak's tiny 1977 Ford Fiesta compact at about 45 mph. He was not wearing a seat belt.
“Time really does slow down,” Kozak recalls. “I was thinking, ‘What can I do to make this hurt less, because it's coming.' ”
Kozak spent a week in the hospital with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. But the question he asked himself right before impact -- “What can I do to make this hurt less?” -- would inspire him in the coming years.
Kozak is now Ford's global safety chief engineer. His accident fueled an obsession to improve auto safety.
At Ford, Kozak championed such advancements as the seat belt chime, new welding techniques and one-piece body panels.
But Kozak is more than a gearhead. He taught himself to navigate the corporate bureaucracy, battle the bean counters and win allies.
For example, Kozak, 53, is developing a communication system that lets drivers read vehicle information without taking their eyes off the road.
Kozak asked Jim Farley, Ford's group vice president of global marketing, to be the first executive to test it.
“If I don't have the marketing guy behind me, then I'll put those resources into another area,” says Kozak, a tall, slender man with a full head of dark hair.
The outgoing Kozak is a self-described tech “geek.” He listens closely during conversations and banters easily. He comes to life when he talks technology and safety, infecting even nongearheads with his enthusiasm.