FORD EXPLORER ROLLOVER
AND RECALL HISTORY & THE FIRESTONE TIRE TREAD SEPARATION / EXPLORER
Government Gets Involved in Auto Safety
In November 1965,
a young consumer activist named Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed,
a book that criticized the rollover tendencies of General Motors' Corvair
sportscar. The book's publication resulted in a scandal when it was revealed
that GM hired private detectives in an attempt to discredit Nader. James
Roche, the president of GM, was summoned before a Congressional subcommittee
to explain the company's actions and to apologize to Nader.
The scandal brought
auto safety into the spotlight and contributed to the passage of two new
auto safety laws, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of
1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966, and the creation of the National
Highway Safety Bureau. Under the Highway Safety Act of 1970, the bureau
was renamed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
By law, NHTSA's
responsibilities include: reducing deaths, injuries, and economic losses
resulting from motor vehicle crashes by setting and enforcing safety standards;
investigating safety defects in motor vehicles; setting and enforcing
fuel economy standards; and conducting research on driver behavior and
1975 CAFE and the Impact of New Fuel Economy Standards
Responding to the
high gasoline prices and fuel shortages of the early 1970s, Congress passed
the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The act required automakers to
meet strict fuel efficiency standards known as CAFE (Corporate Average
Fuel Economy). Failure to meet the CAFE standard would result in fines
based on the total number of vehicles produced by an automaker in a given
The bipartisan legislation
devised separate standards for automobiles and light trucks. Because they
were used primarily on farms and ranches, light trucks were subject to
a less stringent standard. The automakers took advantage of this loophole
when developing the first SUVs (classified as light trucks) in the early
1980s Reagan Enters Office on a Mission to Deregulate
During the late
1970s, under Carter appointee Joan Claybrook (a protégé
of Ralph Nader), NHTSA pushed through a rash of new regulations and undertook
aggressive investigations, including a famous investigation of the Ford
In 1981 the Reagan
administration came to power with the promise of broad deregulation to
help the ailing auto industry. With the help of powerful pro-industry
Democrats in Congress -- led by House Commerce Committee chairman John
Dingell of Dearborne, Mich. -- the administration blocked efforts to regulate
the auto industry. NHTSA's budget was slashed and its staff was told that
the agency's efforts would be directed toward repealing existing regulations
rather than proposing new ones.
1980 Rollovers Make National News Headlines
The issue of rollover
first made national news in 1980 when CBS's 60 Minutes aired a report
on the Jeep CJ, the model for many early SUVs. The report showed footage
of an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety test in which the vehicle
rolled over while executing a "J" turn (a sweeping right turn
followed by a straight-on path) and during sudden evasive maneuvers, such
as a quick turn to avoid an object in its path. Despite the rollover risk,
Americans flocked to the Jeep. Other automakers, their sales slumping,
the Bronco II
Using the Jeep CJ
as a model, Ford introduced its first SUV, the Bronco II, which rolled
out in March 1983. It was an immediate hit. Throughout the 1980s, the
company sold over 700,000 Bronco IIs -- double its initial projections.
Almost immediately, however, the Bronco II began to have rollover problems.
As deaths and serious
injuries mounted, so did lawsuits. Plaintiff attorneys discovered that
Ford knew that its Bronco II prototypes were tipping onto two wheels at
speeds as low as 20 miles per hour, and that Ford had even considered
shelving the Bronco II project during development. To make the Bronco
II less likely to roll over, Ford engineers proposed widening the vehicle
by two inches. But Ford's management -- conscious of competition with
GM's Chevrolet Blazer -- decided not to do so, because it would have delayed
"Job 1" (the vehicle's first date of production).
1986 A Congressman Petitions, and NHTSA Declines to Regulate SUVs
In 1986, Congressman
Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) petitioned NHTSA to force changes in the basic design
of SUVs. He was spurred to act after the release of a controversial report
-- funded in part by trial lawyers -- which used a mathematical formula
called the "static stability factor" (calculated by dividing
the width of a vehicle's track by two times the height of its center of
gravity) to show a link between a vehicle's dimensions and its stability.
NHTSA engineer Anna
Harwin was assigned to study the matter and make a recommendation. Based
on her analysis of the rollover crash data of early SUVs, her final paper
showed "a pronounced and consistent pattern" of a relationship
between a vehicle's height and width and its propensity to roll over.
Congressman Wirth's petition was now backed by NHTSA research, and all
five NHTSA departments recommended that the agency consider regulation.
The ultimate decision,
however, was up to NHTSA administrator Diane Steed, the Reagan political
appointee who headed the agency, and she denied the Wirth petition. In
a 1993 legal deposition, Steed explained that she had rejected the petition
because she believed the static stability factor was an inadequate measure
to use as a basis for regulation. Her decision preserved the basic design
of the SUV, and helped set NHTSA's future course on rollovers.
at the Bronco II, then Looks the Other Way
By 1989, the Bronco
II had become the primary target of safety advocates and trial lawyers,
who approached NHTSA for a recall of the vehicle. According to federal
crash statistics, the Bronco II was one of the three most deadly SUVs
then on the road, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had rated
it the most deadly.
In October 1990,
NHTSA rejected the petition to launch a formal investigation of the Bronco
II to determine whether or not it should be recalled. According to the
agency, in order to find a safety-related defect, the data must show that
the vehicle's safety-related performance distinguished itself from the
rest of its class (in this case, SUVs). In other words, NHTSA found that
the Bronco II may have been dangerous, but it wasn't dangerous enough
when compared to other SUVs. The decision remains controversial.
Forward with Explorer Despite Stability Problems
Eight months before
the first Ford Explorer was scheduled to roll off the assembly line, the
Bronco II failed handling tests conducted by Consumer Reports, and the
magazine warned its readers against purchasing the vehicle due to its
Concerned that the
new Explorer would face similar scrutiny, Ford's engineers put the Explorer
prototype through the same test at a company testing site in Arizona.
They found that the Explorer prototype repeatedly tipped up off the ground
during the handling test, showing that it had the same stability problems
as the Bronco II.
During a deposition
in a later rollover lawsuit, Roger Simpson, the project manager for the
Explorer, testified that widening the prototype by two inches likely would
have made the vehicle more stable. However, Ford management decided against
making that change. In the same deposition, Simpson said that one of the
reasons Ford decided against widening the vehicle was because the company
had already invested more than $500 million in the Explorer prototype,
and delaying Job 1 would have been too costly.
The Explorer was
introduced in March 1990. It quickly became the best-selling SUV in the
world, and helped ignite an explosion in SUV sales.
1990 Congress Kills Higher CAFE Standards ... and SUVs Roll On
After Saddam Hussein's
forces invaded Kuwait, U.S. politicians grew concerned about U.S. dependence
on foreign oil. Senator Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) proposed a bill that would
raise CAFE gas mileage requirements 40 percent by the year 2001. SUVs
were included under the Bryan bill, which would have made the gas-guzzling
vehicles an expensive liability for automakers.
Bush's NHTSA administrator, Gen. Jerry Curry, would have been responsible
for enforcing the bill's fuel efficiency standards. He believed that the
only way to meet the new requirements would be to make cars smaller, which
would make them less safe. He ordered NHTSA engineers to conduct a series
of crash tests between one of the largest cars on the market and two of
the smallest, and released the video with narration that said, "Any
government fuel conservation legislation that forces a significant reduction
in car size can be expected to increase the number of deaths and cause
injuries." The narration specifically attacked the Bryan bill: "These
two accidents graphically illustrate that the laws of physics cannot be
set aside by well-intentioned but ill-advised legislation. What happens
when cars are made smaller? Draw your own conclusions."
A lobbying group
called the Coalition for Vehicle Choice -- funded by the auto industry
and headed by former NHTSA administrator Diane Steed -- obtained a copy
of the video and used it in a national ad campaign attacking the Bryan
bill. Using the safety argument, Senator Donald Riegel (D-Mich.) led a
successful filibuster that killed the Bryan bill in October 1990.
1991 ISTEA: A Fateful Legislative Showdown on Auto Safety
Frustrated by the
anti-regulatory agenda in Washington during the 1980s, auto-safety advocates,
working with their allies in the Senate, raided a giant 1991 transportation
bill called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Effiency Act, known
as ISTEA. The goal was to attach riders to the bill mandating a number
of tougher auto-safety regulations, including one that governed rollovers.
In conference, the
final ISTEA legislation was fiercely contested. After two weeks of negotiations
between the House and Senate, the safety advocates prevailed on a mandate
for passenger-side airbags, but on other safety requirements the language
was softened. On rollover regulations, a critical compromise was made.
Rather than require anti-rollover regulation, as the Senate bill would
have done, the final bill required NHTSA only to formally consider an
anti-rollover rule. That seemingly minor change spelled the fate for rollover
regulation for the next decade. The bill was signed by President George
H.W. Bush in December 1991.
In June 1994, as
a response to the ISTEA legislation, Bill Clinton's secretary of transportation,
Federico Pena, held a press conference to announce the department's decision
on rollover regulation. NHTSA would not issue a rollover standard. "We
rejected what seemed to be an appealing solution -- a strict stability
standard -- but what actually proved to be an enormously expensive and
largely ineffective answer to a very complicated problem," the secretary
In place of a rollover
standard, Pena touted a new tactic: consumer information. Pena's plan
was to place a "safety sticker" with rollover ratings on all
new cars and light trucks sold in the United States. "The Safety
Sticker ... will, for the first time, give consumers better and more complete
information about the safety of cars and light trucks at the time and
place where consumers tell us that such information is most useful: on
the car, in the dealership, at the point of purchase," Pena said.
The sticker proposal
was immediately attacked from both sides. Safety advocates who had pushed
for a stability rule felt that consumer information was an inferior alternative.
On the other hand, the industry, which had long opposed any rollover standard,
now objected to a rollover rating, arguing that no test existed that could
reliably rate a vehicle's tendency to roll.
announcement, Congressman Bob Carr (D-Mich.), a strong defender of the
auto industry, derailed the consumer information effort. He pushed through
a bill that froze all spending on the sticker initiative for two years,
requiring instead a National Academy of Sciences study of "motor
vehicle safety consumer information needs and the most cost-effective
methods of communicating this information."
In the face of these
delays and strong opposition by the auto industry, NHTSA finally dropped
the sticker initiative in 1999.
2000 Ford-Firestone Scandal Explodes
In February 2000,
Houston television station KHOU aired a report that spotlighted the deadly
tread separation problems of Firestone radial Wilderness ATX tires on
Ford Explorers. In May 2000, after receiving 90 complaints -- including
reports of 33 crashes resulting in 27 injuries and 4 deaths -- NHTSA launched
a formal investigation.
On Aug. 9, 2000,
Bridgestone/Firestone announced that it was recalling 6.5 million tires.
In May 2001, Ford announced that it was recalling all 13 million Firestone
Wilderness ATX tires that remained on its vehicles, saying it was concerned
about the tires' safety. At congressional hearings in June, Firestone
CEO John Lampe questioned whether the Explorer's design had contributed
to the rollover problem.
in October 2001 that some Firestone tires were prone to tread separation,
and ordered Firestone to recall an additional 3.5 million tires. Bridgestone
ultimately lost $1.6 billion in the year following the scandal and Ford
was forced to budget $3 billion for its own tire recall. While the Ford
Explorer lost market share as a result of the scandal, it came out relatively
unscathed and remains the best-selling SUV in the world.
Assessment Program and Rollover Ratings
In June 2000, NHTSA
proposed to rate vehicles on rollover, as part of its New Car Assessment
Program (NCAP). Rather than post the information in showrooms, however,
as the agency had originally called for in 1994, NHTSA would place the
new rankings on its website. To rank vehicles, NHTSA turned back to the
static stability factor, the much maligned formula Tim Wirth had proposed
Soon after NHTSA's
new proposal was announced, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), pushed through
a bill requiring a National Academy of Sciences study on the value of
static stability factor before any ratings could be published. Senator
Shelby's move was overtaken by the sheer force of events. As the Ford-Firestone
rollover scandal intensified during the summer, legislators, feeling the
pressure, allowed the new ratings to be released while the NAS study was
In January 2001,
nearly seven years after Pena's announcement of the "safety sticker"
initiative, the first-ever rollover ratings were posted on NHTSA's website.
(See Rollover Resistance Ratings Information for an explanation of NHTSA's
ratings system. To find the ratings for a particular vehicle, see Buying
a Safer Car.
As a class, SUVs
have the poorest rollover stability ratings.
Requires New Rollover Test
Responding to the
Ford-Firestone debacle, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) sponsored the Transportation
Reporting Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act (known as
the TREAD Act) in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill sought to
improve consumer protection and communication between auto and tire manufacturers
and the federal government. In particular, it required auto and tire manufacturers
to report any defects on American autos and tires sold in foreign countries.
It also proposed increasing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's
authority to collect information about possibly defective products and
expanding its budget for investigations. The bill was signed by President
Clinton in November 2000.
of the TREAD Act is the requirement that by the end of 2002, NHTSA must
produce a dynamic stability test for rollovers. In a dynamic stability
test, the vehicle is put through a mobile course to more accurately determine
its propensity to roll over.
2001 Redesigned Explorer Hits Showrooms
In February, Ford
rolled out its fully redesigned 2002 Explorer. The new model was widened
by two inches and included independent rear suspension. Ford CEO Jacques
Nasser has said that none of the changes were made for safety reasons.
PENDING DECISIONS ON THE FORD EXPLORER
Explorer's Design Defective
A California jury
ruled that an auto repair shop was liable for poor service on a 1994 Ford
Explorer that rolled over in a 1997 crash, in which a couple was severely
injured. Although the jurors did not find Ford liable for the accident,
they agreed that there was a design defect in the vehicle, marking the
first time a jury had found a defect in the Explorer's design.
Because it was found
not responsible for the accident, Ford saw the decision as a victory.
"This is a win, plain and simple," said Ford spokesman Ken Zino.
"A general finding of defect is meaningless in these cases."
Turner , an attorney who has filed dozens of lawsuits against Ford, agreed
that it is difficult to interpret the jury's decision. He told the Detroit
Free Press, "I think it would be unfair to say that the jury found
the Explorer was defective or unsafe in this case. You can't know what
was in the jurors' minds when they checked that box."
Not to Investigate Ford Explorer
In a decision that
was seen as a victory for Ford, NHTSA denied Bridgestone/Firestone's request
to investigate safety defects in the Ford Explorer. The agency based its
decision on extensive analysis of its own data and data provided by Ford
and Firestone. NHTSA's reasoning behind this decision is the same as the
reasoning behind its 1989 decision not to recall the Bronco II. According
to NHTSA's administrator, George W. Bush appointee Dr. Jeffrey Runge,
"The data does not support Firestone's contention that Explorers
stand out from other SUVs with respect to its handling characteristics
following a tread separation."
CLASS ACTION- EXPLORER RECALL UPDATE
In addition to the
numerous personal-injury lawsuits that Ford and Firestone face, there
are two major pending developments involving the Ford Explorer:
Led by Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, state attorneys general
are expected to decide by mid year whether to sue Ford on charges that
the company concealed known defects in the Explorer and hid overseas recalls
from consumers. In November 2001, Bridgestone/Firestone agreed to a $51.5
million settlement with the states in which they agreed to cooperate in
the ongoing investigation of Ford.
Ford and Firestone both may face a possible class-action lawsuit