RECALL / FORD EXPLORER ROLLOVER CONTROVERSY
Statement of Joan Claybrook
On Firestone Tire Defect and Ford Explorer Rollovers
United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
September 12, 2000
Mr. Chairman and Members
of the Committee:
I am pleased to
accept your invitation to testify today on the Firestone tire defect that
has killed at least 88 and injured 250 people, most of them in Ford Explorers.
I am President of Public Citizen, a national public interest organization
founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 with 150,000 members nationwide. I served
as Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
in the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1977 to 1981. This agency
is responsible for administering the recall of the Firestone tires. The
Firestone 500 recall occurred in 1978 when I was Administrator.
Much has been written
and broadcast in the past month about the lethal combination of Ford Explorers
and Firestone tires. This is a design defect exacerbated by the fact that
Ford required a low inflation pressure of 26 psi to mitigate rollover
problems with these vehicles. Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires
on Ford Explorers are overheating with highway use, causing the tread
to separate and the SUVs to experience catastrophic crashes, not infrequently
rolling over and causing fatal injuries. At least 135 people world-wide
have died. This tragedy is teaching the public as well as policy makers
a number of lessons. I would like to comment on five issues and make recommendations
for more effective enforcement of the nation s motor vehicle safety defect
1. Ford and Firestone
covered up safety problems with the tire/SUV combination for a decade.
Coverups will continue without corrective action by NHTSA.
The Ford Explorer
was first offered for sale in March 1990. Numerous Ford internal documents
show the company engineers recommended changes to the vehicle design after
it rolled over in company tests prior to introduction, but other than
a few minor changes, the suspension and track width were not changed because
this would have delayed the introduction date by as much as ten months.
Instead, Ford, which sets the specifications for the manufacture of its
tires, decided to remove air from the tires, lowering the recommended
psi to 26. It appears Ford never fully tested the tires at this level.
The Firestone-recommended psi molded into the tire for maximum load is
Within a year of
introduction, lawsuits against Ford and Firestone were filed for tire
failures that resulted in crashes and rollovers. At least five cases were
filed by 1993, and others followed in the mid-1990s. Almost all were settled,
and settled with gag orders prohibiting the attorneys and the families
from disclosing information about the cases or their documentation to
the public or DOT. When lawsuits are filed against a company about a safety
defect, the company organizes an internal investigation to assemble information
and analysis about the allegations. Top company officials are kept informed
about all lawsuits against the company, particularly when they accumulate
concerning one problem. There is no question the companies knew they had
a problem. But they kept it secret.
During the early
1990s, Ford was concerned with improving the rolling resistance of the
tires to be used on the 1995 model Explorer, apparently because of the
reduced fuel economy with the low 26 psi inflation level. Changes were
made to the 1995 model s suspension system, but these did not lower the
center of gravity, an essential element in rollover susceptibility.
In 1996, several
state agencies in Arizona began having major problems with tread separations
on Firestone tires on Explorers. According to news reports, various agencies
demanded new tires, and Firestone sent six engineers to Arizona to conduct
an investigation of the complaints, tested the tires and asserted that
the tires had been abused or under-inflated.
By the end of 1996,
at least 15 lawsuits had been filed.
The Ford Explorer
and its sister vehicles with Firestone tires were sold across the globe.
In 1998, Ford and Firestone exchanged correspondence and had discussions
about tire failures in Middle Eastern, Asian and South American countries.
Tires were tested and analyzed. Dealers complained bitterly to Ford and
Firestone from 1997 to 2000 about deaths and injuries in Ford Explorers,
the adverse effect these were having on sales and delays in getting any
In January 1998,
Glenn Drake, Ford s regional marketing manager in the United Arab Emirates
e-mails other Ford officials: "If this was a single case, I would
accept Firestone s response as they are the experts in the tire business,
case closed. However, we now have three cases and it is possible that
Firestone is not telling us the whole story to protect them from a recall
or a lawsuit."
In 1996, Ford instructed
Firestone to upgrade the tires in Venezuela by adding a nylon ply to the
tires it manufactured there for additional strength, and Ford made suspension
changes to the Explorer, adding a stiffer shock absorber and reinforcement
of the suspension. But Ford did not specify adding the nylon ply for U.S.-made
Firestone tires nor did it change the U.S. made Explorer suspension at
decided to conduct its own recall without Firestone and replace the tires
in the various foreign countries in 1999 and 2000 (called a "customer
notification enhancement action"). Ford did this without Firestone
because the tire company was fearful a recall would require notification
of NHTSA. A March 1999 Ford memo reveals "Firestone legal has some
major reservations about the plan to notify customers and offer them an
option...They feel that the U.S. D.O.T. will have to be notified of the
program, since the product is sold in the U.S."
In May 2000, a top
Ford official in Venezuela was quoted in the press as saying the company
was replacing the tires there because in Venezuela "the highways
allow drivers to travel at high speeds for a sustained period of time,
leading to the loosening of the rolling surface of the tire, its consequent
blowout and the accident."
On August 30, 2000,
the Venezuelan safety regulatory agency, Indecu, concluded after an investigation
that Firestone and Ford "met to plan ways out of a situation that
commercial interests, at the price of causing damage, destruction and
death," and announced it is recommending possible criminal enforcement
for involuntary manslaughter. Neither Ford nor Firestone informed the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of this recall, euphemistically
labeled a "No Charge Service Program Award Notification."
documents recently have become available revealing the company had reason
to know since 1997 from property damage and injury claims and tire performance
data (such as warranty adjustments and financial analysis of such claims)
that its tires were failing. Several documents show a large jump in claims
involving tread separations in 1997 and 1998. During all these years the
company disclaimed any problem -- to consumers, to state government officials
and to Ford. One company chart reveals that tread separations for the
Wilderness tire increased 194 percent in 1999 from 1998. Test data on
the tires by Ford and Firestone are still not available.
By the end of 1999,
four months before NHTSA opened its investigation, at least 59 lawsuits
had been filed. A total of at least 35 deaths and 130 injuries were involved
in the lawsuits or notice of lawsuits to the companies by May 2000.
are a number of parallels between this recall in 2000 and the 1978 recall
of the Firestone 500. Most particularly, there was a documented coverup
by Firestone of the 500 defect, spurred by the lack of a Firestone replacement
tire. When the coverup was disclosed, the top management of the company
was replaced. Firestone was severely damaged financially and in reputation.
But a key difference is that the Firestone 500 was used on passenger cars,
which rarely rolled over with tire failure. NHTSA documented 41 deaths
with the Firestone 500 case, which involved about seven million tires
Once again, when
confronted with accusations about the performance of the tire, Firestone
has misleadingly claimed owner abuse (i.e. under-inflation, rough use
or improper fix). Neither Ford nor Firestone designed a margin of safety
into its vehicles and tires.
2. The National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs additional legislative authority
to assure that manufacturers obey the law, report safety defects and recall
To prevent coverups
of safety defects in the future, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle
Safety Act should be amended. In March 2000 the agency sent legislation
to the Congress which would make some improvements, but additional authority
is needed. The Congress should:
a. Increase civil
penalties for failure to recall a defective vehicle or part or withholding
information from the agency. Now the maximum penalty is $925,000, hardly
a deterrent for multinational corporations. The penalty for each violation
should be increased from $1,000 to $10,000 (as at the Environmental Protection
Agency); the violation for withholding documents should be per day rather
than per document as it is now (no matter how long it is withheld). There
should be no maximum penalty.
b. As in the Food
and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency laws,
there should be criminal penalties for reckless endangerment and knowing
and willful refusal to recall a defective vehicle or part or for withholding
information that results in deaths and injuries. Chairman John Moss, after
reviewing the Firestone 500 debacle in 1978, recommended criminal penalties
be added to the NHTSA statute.
c. As recommended
by NHTSA s proposed bill, a company should be required by law to test
its products before self-certifying for compliance with the agency s standards.
Such testing is not now required by law.
d. The statute of
limitations for NHTSA to mandate a recall is now eight years for vehicles
and three years for tires from the date of manufacture. It should be extended,
as the agency recommends, to 10 years for vehicles and five years for
tires. The statute should be tolled, however, when companies conceal defects.
The agency should have authority to require a company to purchase replacement
parts from a competitor if necessary where there is an imminent hazard
and be able to require reimbursement to consumers who made repairs or
bought replacements prior to the recall.
e. There is disagreement
about whether the current law requiring manufacturers to send NHTSA copies
of all notices sent to dealers and owners about a defect is applicable
in this case. Ford sent notices to foreign dealers about a defect in a
product made and sold in the U.S. and also sold abroad. Does the fact
that the notice was sent to foreign dealers negate Ford s responsibility
to notify NHTSA? I don t think so, but certainly the law should be clarified
that this is a company s responsibility in this age of globalization.
Companies should also have a duty to give NHTSA early warnings based on
fatality, injury, warranty or other data it gathers, and the agency should
be able to get relevant information from insurers.
f. NHTSA s budget
needs to be larger, much larger, particularly for enforcement. Ninety-four
percent of transportation deaths occur on the highway, yet NHTSA has only
a tiny percentage of the transportation budget. Although it has been increased
in recent years, and I thank the Appropriations Committees for that, it
is still 30 percent below, in real dollars, what it was when I left the
agency at the beginning of 1981. Its enforcement budget is about one-half
of the 1980 budget. It has fewer than 20 engineer/investigators working
on vehicle safety defects for the entire country. The Congress should
add at least $20 million to the agency s 2001 budget for additional staff
and capacity. Look at it this way: We spend hundreds of billions of dollars
for defense, but more members of the military are killed and injured in
motor vehicle crashes than in military duty. The members of the 106th
Congress should not be able to go home for election and tell the voters
they have acted to prevent another future catastrophe without sending
legislation to the President for signature.
3. The Firestone/Ford
recall should be expanded to cover all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires
to protect the public from this catastrophic defect, and all data and
information should be made public to restore public trust.
Much of the data
on which Ford based its analysis of Firestone claims data is still not
public or subject to outside scrutiny (such as how many tires were made
at each plant and when -- an important factor since the defect appears
to emerge after two to four years of use), and it is based on information
only through April 2000. None of the recent information that has been
pouring into the companies and NHTSA as the public is getting informed
about the problem is included. It also covers only claims data -- claims
for compensation for injury or property damage. It does not cover warranty
claims or adjustment data for tire failures. It does not cover any information
known to Ford (although there will be duplication between Ford and Firestone
data) such as tire test data, including at 26 psi. It also does not cover
new information now known by NHTSA about claims.
On September 1,
after analyzing recent data (complaints, lawsuits, injuries, including
information submitted to date from Ford and Firestone), NHTSA determined
that the recall should be enlarged to cover another 1.4 million tires.
NHTSA said it is still investigating to determine if the recall should
be enlarged further. It issued a consumer advisory because Firestone refused
to enlarge the recall, an indication of Firestone s attitude toward a
safety defect that gives the consumer no warning and can result in death
and severe injury when the vehicle is operated normally. This same attitude
was evident in Firestone s offer made on August l6 in public newspaper
ads that it would reimburse owners who bought other tires, but the offer
also ended on August l6! Had it not been for a temporary restraining order
issued by a federal judge in Louisville preventing the company from discontinuing
the one-day offer, Firestone might have faced a massive consumer revolt,
picket lines, more consumer lawsuits and more disputes with its largest
customer, Ford Motor Company, which is pressing to get the tires replaced
quickly with tires from other manufacturers as well as Firestone.
There is every indication
that this problem is a design defect that affects all the tires produced.
In the Firestone 500 case, the company at first asserted that only 400,000
tires were defective, those produced in the Decatur plant. But during
NHTSA s investigation, as more data were available and company documents
were secured and analyzed, we found that the tread separation on the 500
was a design performance defect. The company knew about it for at least
three years and never informed NHTSA, and it was at the same time making
running changes on the production line to correct the problem in new tires.
There are other
indications that the companies should expand the recall. An analysis released
September 1 of about 90 filed lawsuits or claims about to be filed showed
that 37 percent covered non-recalled tires. In several of the foreign
recalls, l6-inch tires were included (but are not recalled in the U.S.).
There are a number
of documents and data that are still secret. This undermines public scrutiny
of the scope of the August recall, and many of the documents are missing
information or poorly formatted and so hard to read they look like first
drafts. Secrecy is found in submissions by the companies to NHTSA, in
documents not yet submitted, or gag orders in lawsuits that should be
made public. The agency rarely uses its subpoena power authority but could
do so to secure these protected documents. This may be painful for the
companies, but it is essential given the broad public debate about this
safety defect and the need for the companies to regain public trust. This
information will probably leak out over time anyway, so it makes sense
to release it now.
4. NHTSA failed
to discover this defect because it lacks a proactive program to discover
a. NHTSA was caught
flatfooted in this case because it rarely pushes companies to obey the
law. The Department allowed GM to resist recalling its five million defectively
designed 1973-1987 pickup trucks with side-saddle gas tanks that explode
in side-impact crashes (approximately 800 people have died because of
fire in crashes with these vehicles, according to NHTSA s Fatal Accident
Reporting System). It allowed Ford to resist recalling its vehicles equipped
with ignition modules that frequently failed, causing vehicles to stall.
It allowed Chrysler to label its correction of its minivans with defective
rear-door latches that pop open in rear crashes (throwing occupants outside)
a "service campaign" and not a safety recall. I don t think
its subpoena power has been exercised in 20 years, and it rarely imposes
penalties when it learns companies have slithered around its request to
produce documents, which unfortunately happens with some frequency.
roll the dice in attempts to avoid mandatory recalls and usually win.
This time their coverup was revealed by an enterprising investigative
reporter at KHOU in Houston on February 7 and 10. This time they are the
losers as the media spotlight forces the story of the sorry state of safety
defect enforcement and manufacturer compliance with the law into the public
b. NHTSA also has
no early warning system in place and has not been proactive in requiring
manufacturer warnings or in using sources of information that are on the
pulse-beat of current real world information about vehicle performance.
They can and should routinely get information from: auto repair facilities;
fleet owners, including national, state and local fleets; lawyers representing
deceased and injured family members who find out about defects through
discovery and cross examination of manufacturers; insurance company data;
and also from the companies themselves, as they are the first to receive
consumer complaints and dealer concerns. The auto companies also know,
as in this case, the design decisions they have made that could compromise
In this case, State
Farm Insurance Co., the nation s largest insurer, sent an e-mail and called
NHTSA in 1998 about 21 cases of Firestone tire tread separations, but
the agency ignored it. The press reports that another 30 cases were discussed
with the agency in 1999, and the agency ignored them as well. Finally,
on April 25, 2000, in response to a NHTSA request, 70 reports covering
1996 through April 2000 were sent. How could this happen? How often does
the agency check complaints dutifully filed by consumers through its hotline
and in letters to spot trends? They are all on a computer list by make,
model and alleged defect. Even if this happens routinely, it s not enough
-- because, as this case illustrates, most consumers don t bother contacting
The agency should
require, as does EPA, that a company notify the agency if it gets 25 complaints
about the same alleged defect, and require, as does the Consumer Product
Safety Commission, that the company notify the agency if three or more
lawsuits alleging the same safety defect are filed.
The agency has also
used a highly inappropriate system for evaluating whether a safety defect
exists -- looking at statistical data which are rarely adequate. If it
cannot establish a statistical basis, the agency does not find a defect.
Crash statistics are totally inadequate to justify such an approach. Yet,
the Administrator admitted in testimony last week that NHTSA did something
similar in this case -- comparing 46 complaint problems to 40 million
tires manufactured -- and didn t act. But with a catastrophic, deadly
failure, this is completely inappropriate. And the agency never did the
simple analysis published on Friday, September 8, in the New York Times
showing that fatal crashes in 1995-1998 Ford Explorers are "nearly
three times as likely to be tire related as fatalities involving other
sport utilities or cars." The courts have held in a number of cases
that if a safety element of the vehicle fails and can result in death
or injury, there is a failure of safety performance sufficient to find
a defect, and there is no need to look for dead bodies on the highway
The 1994 Michelin
tire case reported in the Akron Beacon Journal is a different example.
It was opened by NHTSA on the basis of five complaints with no injuries.
The agency said it launched the investigation as a courtesy to the Kentucky
Attorney General but says the complaints alone did not warrant it. But
in testimony last week, NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey said one seat belt
complaint would be enough to open an investigation. Clearly the various
elements of a case, not just the numbers, must be evaluated.
In short, NHTSA
has not been the tough cop on the regulatory beat. When it is, the companies
are more safety-conscious, the public is protected, and in the end it
is less work for all parties. The Firestone/Ford case shows what happens
when safety is not Job 1 in the companies or in the government.
5. Essential safety
standards are severely out of date, were scrapped or delayed in the Reagan
years, or are prohibited by law because of industry lobbying.
a. The tire safety
standard is 32 years old and is not fully effective for testing radial
tires. Both Ford and GM have recently stated that they favor an improved
standard. The current standard tests for strength, endurance and how well
the tire remains on the rim. Radial tires last much longer than bias ply
tires and should be subjected to a tougher standard.
b. The Uniform Tire
Quality Grading standard applies only to car tires, not truck/SUV tires.
It is a consumer information requirement rating tread wear, traction and
heat resistance with the rating molded into the tire. It should be expanded
to cover truck/SUV tires. As it happens, the Explorer/Firestone tire is
rated because it is used on a large Buick station wagon. For heat resistance,
it gets the lowest grade. But Ford official Jon Harmon dismissed the poor
rating, indicating that if the tire meets Ford s performance standards
the C rating is of no concern. But Ford s tests have not been produced
c. The roof crush
standard is 30 years old. It is a static standard requiring weight to
be placed on the roof of the vehicle (applied to SUVs beginning in model
year 1994) equal to 1.5 times the maximum unloaded weight of the vehicle.
In many of the Ford Explorer/Firestone rollover cases, the roof crushes
into the vehicle, severely enhancing the likelihood of injury and death.
A dynamic rollover crash worthiness standard should be issued addressing
roof crush, door lock and hinges, side glazing materials, side air bags
and head protection. Crash protection in rollovers must include effective
safety belts with pretensioners.
d. The first petition
to NHTSA for a rollover prevention standard was filed by Representative
Timothy Wirth 15 years ago. Others followed. In 1991 the Congress required
NHTSA to conduct a rollover prevention rulemaking. The agency made an
initial effort at developing a safety standard but then dropped it and
instead proposed a consumer information requirement. The auto industry
then got the Appropriations Committee to prohibit issuance of a consumer
information rule until after a study by the National Academy of Sciences
about the usefulness and presentation of consumer information. Finally
in May 2000 the agency proposed to conduct New Car Assessment tests for
rollover based on a static measurement of track width and center of gravity
height, but once again the manufacturers objected and the Appropriations
Committee bill requires yet another study by the NAS before it could be
issued. This bill is now in conference.
Our coalition of
consumer and health groups and insurers favors dropping the study and
letting NHTSA proceed with its rulemaking on the consumer information
test, even though we prefer a more comprehensive test. A 1998 Harris poll
conducted for Advocates For Highway and Auto Safety shows 62 percent of
the public wants such information. But we also want a rollover prevention
standard. It is long overdue. About 9,500 highway deaths annually occur
in rollover crashes -- almost 25 percent of all highway deaths. This problem
must be addressed, particularly with the large numbers of SUVs being used
as family vehicles that are susceptible to rollover.
e. The agency should
issue a rule for a tire inflation indicator on the dashboard, as I proposed
22 years ago. It was eliminated by the Reagan administration. The companies
complain that tires are not properly inflated but then lobby to undercut
consumers ability to properly maintain their tires with accurate information.
f. The tire manufacturing
information now molded into the black wall of the tire should be placed
on the whitewall or outside of the tire so a consumer doesn t have to
crawl under the car to find it to determine if their tire is subject to
a recall. This was part of my rulemaking plan more than 20 years ago,
but it was never issued after I left.
g. The tire reserve
load consumer information requirement eliminated in the Reagan years should
be reestablished to inform consumers of the maximum rated load capacity
of the vehicle, so they know when they should inflate their tires for
maximum load carrying.
h. The agency should
be alert in this case to whether its requirement for record retention
of only five years should be extended, since the critical evidence in
this case extends over a decade.
i. Three elements
of legislation are needed that are relevant to this case:
First, the 1982
legislation eliminating the responsibility of independent tire dealers
to report the names and addresses of tire purchasers to the manufacturer
for notification in the event of a recall should be changed back to requiring
such record keeping as during the period from 1970 until 1982. Independent
dealers with computers today can readily supply such names to the manufacturer.
The current law only requires the independent dealer to give the consumer
a card to mail themselves. A 1986 NHTSA report showed only 11 percent
responded. Thus, in this case, most buyers from independent dealers will
not be notified by mail.
Second, the current
law requires tire owners to return the tire within 60 days of a recall
notification (which, I presume, means if a manufacturer has no contact
information, a consumer would have to rely on news reports) or 60 days
after tire replacement. Car owners in recalls don t have this limitation.
It is confusing enough to get tires replaced without this added complexity.
It should be eliminated.
Third, the current
prohibition in the law on a NHTSA rule requiring a continuous buzzer to
alert occupants to buckle up should be eliminated. Among car companies,
only Ford, I believe, now has a continuous buzzer. The current law only
permits NHTSA to require a 4 - 8 second buzzer. Belt use is essential
in rollovers. It should be encouraged in every way, including when the
vehicle is in use.
Mr. Chairman, we
urge the Committee to immediately mark-up and pass new legislative authority
for NHTSA so it can do its job. It must be a priority for this Congress.
And such legislation should instruct the agency to upgrade and issue the
safety standards referenced above that are long overdue.
Thank you Mr. Chairman
for the opportunity to testify on this important subject today.