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The Federal 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 traffic safety.

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 model year.

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.

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 Pinto.

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, took notice.

March 1983

Ford Introduces 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.

March 1989

NHTSA Looks 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.

June 1989

Ford Goes 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 stability problems.

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.

President George 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.

June 1994

The "Safety Sticker" Initiative

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 said.

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.

Following Pena's 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.

NHTSA concluded 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.


New Car 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 in 1986.

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 being conducted.

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.

Nov. 2000

TREAD Act 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.

Another element 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.


Jan. 2002

Jury Finds 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."

Feb. 2002

NHTSA Decides 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."


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

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