Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV
Original airdate: February 21, 2002
Written, Produced and Directed by
Marc Shaffer and
ANNOUNCER: They're America's most popular vehicles, but are they also some of the most dangerous?
ANNOUNCER: How much did Detroit really know?
ANNOUNCER: And why didn't the government do more to protect American drivers?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: There was no regulation of this, and there never was going to be.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the hidden history of the SUV.
NEWSCASTER: It's Tuesday, the 19th of June. I'm David Brancaccio. Is the problem Firestone tires or the Ford Explorers that use them?
NEWSCASTER: -today announced the recall of more than six million tires. The tires are under government investigation in connection with hundreds of light truck and SUV accidents.
NEWSCASTER: The chief executive officers of Ford and Firestone brought their charges and countercharges before a congressional panel today. The government is raising a number of-
NARRATOR: It was America's most sensational auto safety scandal.
CONGRESSMAN: Good morning. Welcome to the joint Commerce, Trade and-
NARRATOR: Hundreds of people had been killed when their Ford Explorer rolled over following a Firestone tire failures. Summoned by Congress to answer for the safety of their products were Firestone CEO John Lampe and Ford CEO Jacques Nasser.
Rep. PETER DEUTSCH (D), Florida: The tragedy that brings us here today is one of the worst in auto safety history.
NARRATOR: For Ford, their best-selling Explorer was at stake. For Firestone, perhaps the very survival of the company. Each company blamed the other for the deaths.
JACQUES NASSER, Ford CEO: This is a tire problem, not a vehicle problem.
JOHN LAMPE, Firestone CEO: Mr. Chairman, I must say - and this is not easy for me to say, as well - but there is something wrong with the Ford Explorer.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), Massachusetts: We have a corporate schoolyard brawl that's broken out here. We have two corporations, each of which has leveled a blistering, scalding indictment of the other company.
NARRATOR: The media couldn't get enough of the story. For almost a year Ford versus Firestone dominated the headlines. But was it the most important story?
KEITH BRADSHER, "The New York Times": Everybody is focusing on the tragic deaths involving Firestone tires. But we're ignoring the elephant in the tent, which is the much broader problem created by sport utility vehicles, and not just the Explorer.
NARRATOR: The problem is that sport utility vehicles are rolling over even with good tires. During the same 10 years in which Ford-Firestone crashes caused some 300 deaths, more than 12,000 people - 40 times as many - died in SUV rollover crashes unrelated to tire failure.
KEITH BRADSHER: The Firestone tire deaths are just the tip of iceberg, when it comes to the problems of sport utility vehicles. There's a lot bigger problem out there that people aren't really paying attention to.
NARRATOR: The sport utility vehicle is one of Detroit's greatest success stories. One of every four new vehicles sold in America is an SUV.
FORD SALESMAN: The best-selling sport utility in the world, 12 years running- that's the Explorer.
NARRATOR: For shoppers, there are dozens to choose from. They sport power.
NARRATOR: They offer luxury.
NARRATOR: SUVs have become a favorite of American families.
NISSAN SALESWOMAN: The interior is about the safest place you can be because we have more than 60 standard safety features, including-
NARRATOR: And they are the most profitable vehicles on the market, a savior for an industry once in desperate trouble.
KEITH BRADSHER: By the early 1980s, Detroit was in terrible shape. The auto makers were laying off not just tens but hundreds of thousands of workers. Their market share was plunging because of Japanese competition. High gasoline prices had wrecked demand for the biggest and most profitable models. And very stringent government regulations were keeping them from making the real gas-guzzlers by requiring them to meet very high fuel-economy standards for cars.
NARRATOR: But Detroit found the solution, a way around the new fuel requirements. One class of vehicles - light trucks - was treated more leniently.
KEITH BRADSHER: The bright idea that people at American Motors and Chrysler had was to start building more vehicles that could be classified as light trucks. What did they do? They took the steel underbodies of the pick-up trucks and they simply lowered onto them different passenger compartments and bolted them on.
NARRATOR: The first SUVs hit the market in the early 1980s.
NARRATOR: Marketing consultant Martin Goldfarb was among the first to see the potential for these new vehicles.
MARTIN GOLDFARB, Ford Marketing Consultant: These vehicles really said, "America - we're risk takers. America - we're rugged. America could take the world on." Nowhere else were these vehicles sold except in America.
ANNOUNCER: So advanced, it was named four-by-four of the year!
MARTIN GOLDFARB: Higher off the ground, rugged, great visibility, because you felt you were in charge of the world. And if anybody smaller than you got in front of you, you could kind of run them over, even though you didn't want to do that. But you had this feeling of personal power.
NARRATOR: But the rugged image of this class of vehicles concealed a critical safety flaw. Rollover first made national news in 1980 with this 60 Minutes story on the Jeep CJ, the model for many early SUVs.
MORLEY SAFER, CBS News: I'm only going 8 to 10 miles an hour. But this is what can happen when the Jeep makes a J-turn at 22 miles per hour. And the same run in slow motion.
NARRATOR: The story featured a young insurance industry safety analyst named Brian O'Neill.
BRIAN O'NEILL, Safety Analyst: In these sorts of maneuvers and other maneuvers, the Jeep does roll over, and it rolls over at very low speeds.
SUVs were allegedly designed to go off road. The reality is that virtually none of them go off road, and so we finished up with a vehicle that has some deficits, I would say, based on the fact that they're derived from trucks.
NARRATOR: Like trucks, SUVs were disproportionately tall and narrow, with a high center of gravity. As 60 Minutes showed, this made them more likely to roll over when cornering at even moderate speeds.
BRIAN O'NEILL: The data were overwhelming about the rollover risk of that vehicle, but the manufacturer would never acknowledge that that design was a problem because to do that would- I mean, the liability and the problems involved would be horrendous for the manufacturer.
NARRATOR: Despite the rollover risk, Americans flocked to the Jeep. The other auto makers, their sales still slumping, took notice. At Ford, they used the Jeep CJ as the basis for their own entry into the market, to be called Bronco II.
ANNOUNCER: It's the call of the wild, and Ford answers with Bronco II!
NARRATOR: The Bronco II rolled out in March, 1983. It was an immediate hit. Through the 1980s, Ford would sell more than 700,000 Bronco IIs, double the company's initial projections.
But almost immediately, like the Jeep, the Bronco II began to roll over. Deaths and serious injuries mounted. And with deaths came lawsuits. Little Rock attorney Tab Turner was one of the first to sue Ford over the Bronco II stability problems.
TAB TURNER, Plaintiff Attorney: This vehicle first came out in 1983 as a 1984 model. And by 1985, this vehicle was having lawsuits. There were clearly rollovers occurring. We were beginning to learn what we now know is the history of these vehicles, in terms of the development of them and how frequently even the design engineers were flipping these things over at the automotive companies.
NARRATOR: Over time, lawyers like Turner began to piece together the inside story of the Bronco II. In one fatal accident case, Ford engineer Fred Parrill acknowledged that his company knew that the Bronco II was killing people in rollovers much more often than its rivals.
ATTORNEY: And in fact, based on this report, which we received from your Ford lawyers, the Bronco II has an initial fatal vehicle rate greater than the Jeep CJ-5 and CJ-7, isn't that true?.
FRED PARRILL, Ford Engineer: Somewhat greater, yes.
ATTORNEY: So the Bronco II has a worse initial rollover fatal vehicle rate than the vehicle you've referred to as an outlier, correct?
FRED PARRILL: That's correct.
NARRATOR: In fact, as lawyers discovered, prototypes of the Bronco II tipped up at speeds as low as 20 miles per hour. Management actually considered shelving the Bronco II project during development.
ATTORNEY: You were aware of the fact that the highest level of management in Ford Motor Company was concerned about the risk of injury to people using this proposed Bronco II, is that right?
FRED PARRILL: Yes.
ATTORNEY: And you were aware of the fact that the highest management in the Ford Motor Company was then making a decision whether or not it should even go forward and make this vehicle, isn't that right?.
FRED PARRILL: Correct.
NARRATOR: To make the Bronco II less likely to roll over, Ford engineers proposed to widen it by two inches. But to do so would have delayed Job 1, the first date of production. Management opted not to widen the vehicle.
TAB TURNER: There was nobody working at Ford Motor Company that had the courage to go knock on the chairman and chief executive officer's door and say, "Look, I know we're in this battle with Chevrolet and General Motors to get our vehicle out against the Blazer but, by the way, we need another 18 months." Well, nobody was going to do that.
NARRATOR: Ford's president at the time, Don Petersen, declined to discuss with FRONTLINE the company's decisions on the Bronco II. Ford's defense in Bronco II lawsuits was that rollover accidents were due largely to driver error, not vehicle design. But company lawyers rarely got to argue their case. Routinely, Ford settled the lawsuits quietly.
BRIAN O'NEILL: There were significant lawsuits aimed at the Ford Bronco because of its tippiness, but they didn't produce major design changes in part because the profit margins on these vehicles were so high that one can handle the product liability without making a major commitment to a totally different kind of design. There wasn't that pressure.
NARRATOR: If settlements were apparently a price worth paying for SUV manufacturers, they also meant a quick, certain pay-off for plaintiffs and their lawyers. And so a pattern on SUV safety was set: Lawsuits, settlements, secrecy.
If the brewing problem of SUV rollover were to be tackled, it would require action by a federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA. For a time in the late 1970s, NHTSA pushed through a rash of new regulations and investigations under Ralph Nader protege Joan Claybrook.
KEITH BRADSHER: During the Carter administration, under Joan Claybrook, NHTSA was a very aggressive investigator. They did things that drove the auto makers nuts, like, for example, releasing television footage of the Ford Pinto bursting into flames.
NEWSCASTER: The vulnerability of the Ford pinto to rear-end collisions was verified in federal safety tests.
NARRATOR: But all that changed when Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: The U.S. auto industry remains the best in the world. It simply needs the freedom to compete, unhindered by whimsical bureaucratic changes in energy, environmental and safety regulations.
JOAN CLAYBROOK, NHTSA Administrator (1977-1981): The Reagan administration came into power to deregulate. And they took lists of regulations to abolish from the industry the day they walked into the White House. George bush, the vice president, was put in charge of the regulatory task force, and within four months of coming into office had published a list of "actions to help Detroit."
NARRATOR: Allan Kam was an attorney at NHTSA at the time.
ALLAN KAM, NHTSA Attorney (1975-2000): The Reagan administration actually rescinded several regulations that were on the books. And we were told immediately any proposed or pending regulations- forget about those. The effort was going to be repeal existing ones. New ones, no way.
NARRATOR: And yet this was the NHTSA to which Congress would turn to deal with the growing danger of SUV rollover. In 1986, Democrat Tim Wirth, chair of the House subcommittee overseeing NHTSA, petitioned the agency to force changes in the basic design of SUVs.
MICHAEL BROWNLEE, NHTSA Official (1978-1997): Petitions rarely come from members of Congress, especially from one as powerful as Congressman Wirth was at that time. So yes, it was a big event. And yes, it was seriously addressed.
NARRATOR: Wirth was spurred to act after the release of a controversial report funded in part by trial lawyers. Using a mathematical formula called "static stability factor," the researchers purported to show a link between a vehicle's dimensions and its stability. NHTSA engineer Anna Harwin was assigned to study the matter by her superior, Keith Brewer. She analyzed rollover crash data of the early SUVs.
ANNA HARWIN, NHTSA Engineer (1986-1990): Vehicles that were narrow, taller, rolled over substantially more often than those vehicles that were not. So in other words, you looked at utility vehicles way up here, and you looked at passenger cars way down here. And it was a pronounced and consistent pattern.
MICHAEL BROWNLEE: The Harwin-Brewer paper showed that there was a definite relationship between the height and width of a vehicle and its tendency to roll over.
NARRATOR: Congressman Wirth's proposal to make SUVs more stable was now backed by NHTSA research. In fact, all five agency departments recommended that NHTSA consider regulation.
[1992 speech to the Detroit Economic Club]
DIANE STEED, NHTSA Administrator (1983-1989): Years of laws and regulations have led to an intricate web of federal rules and restrictions.
NARRATOR: But it was Diane Steed, Reagan's head of NHTSA, who had the final say.
DIANE STEED: I think it's time for Washington to take stock of just what effect its policies are having on the auto industry.
NARRATOR: Steed denied the Wirth petition.
ANNA HARWIN: Diane Steed, the political appointee in place at that time, made the decision against the recommendation of her entire staff. It was not a technical decision. All their technical people told them, "Grant it. Let's research it. Grant it."
NARRATOR: Shortly before Steed's decision, Anna Harwin tried to publish her findings. But in an internal memorandum, NHTSA's chief counsel objected.
ANNA HARWIN: "You may wish to revise this paper to reflect the agency position on this issue."
INTERVIEWER: What's that mean?.
ANNA HARWIN: Change my findings, based on what the political decision is of the agency. I'm not good with words. I had graphs and charts. Change the result? I- I- it was - it's absurd.
NARRATOR: Diane Steed declined FRONTLINE's interview requests. But during a 1993 legal deposition, she did answer questions about her decision.
ATTORNEY: Now, Mr. Goldman asked you some questions about static stability factor and its relationship to rollover accidents. And in fact, two employees of NHTSA, Keith Brewer and Elizabeth Harwin, did a study with respect to that matter, did they not?.
DIANE STEED: I don't recall specifically.
ATTORNEY: You don't recall the Brewer-Harwin study?.
DIANE STEED: I remember the term. I really don't know what it was about.
NARRATOR: But later, Steed explained that she had denied the Wirth petition because she doubted the science on which it was based.
ATTORNEY: You didn't think that static stability factor alone should form a rollover standard in and of itself? Is that a fair statement?.
DIANE STEED: If you are referring to T/2H, the formula which I think was Mr. Wirth's formula, we did not figure that that was sufficient, no.
NARRATOR: Steed's decision preserved the basic design of the SUV and helped set NHTSA's future course on rollover. The agency would never issue a broad regulation affecting the stability of all SUVs.
BRIAN O'NEILL, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: We should have introduced a minimum stability standard based on vehicles' characteristics as proposed at the time, but the government decided not to. Their conclusion was that it would eliminate certain kinds of vehicles. Well, good. It would have eliminated certain kinds of unstable vehicles.
NARRATOR: After the NHTSA decision, the auto makers continued to build their SUVs tall and narrow and marketed them for off-road use. The strategy worked brilliantly with American consumers, but marketers knew the rugged image of the SUV was essentially an illusion.
MARTIN GOLDFARB, Ford Marketing Consultant: Most people, remember, never use sport utility vehicles to go off road. They drove them around cities. But there was this projection, "You know, I could if I want to, even though I don't."
NARRATOR: There was a trade-off in designing SUVs for off-road use. On the road, at highway speeds, the sport utilities were tough to handle in emergency situations and could easily roll over. Few did so more than Ford's Bronco II. By 1989, the Bronco II had become the primary target of safety advocates and trial lawyers, who approached NHTSA again, this time not for broad regulation of SUVs but for a recall of this one model.
MICHAEL BROWNLEE: While I was director of the Office of Defects Investigation, the agency was petitioned by a Bronco II owner to decide whether or not it would formally investigate whether or not the Bronco II should be recalled as being a defective vehicle, as a result of having rollover tendency.
NARRATOR: According to federal crash statistics, the Bronco II was one of the three most deadly SUVs then on the road. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated it the most deadly. Some within NHTSA supported the recall.
ALLAN KAM: The Bronco II, as I recall, had a greater propensity to roll over than any of the other SUVs that we looked at. And if we were to ever find an SUV that contained a safety-related defect by virtue of its rollover propensity, it would have been the Bronco II.
NARRATOR: The Bronco II may have been dangerous, but NHTSA decided that under its rules, it was not dangerous enough to recall.
MICHAEL BROWNLEE: In order to find a safety-related defect, the agency must find, the data must show, that this vehicle distinguished itself from the other members of its class in some way that was describable as a safety-related defect. The agency could not do that in the case of the Bronco II, and the petition was denied.
INTERVIEWER: Then the Bronco II was a good car?
MICHAEL BROWNLEE: Certainly not. It was not a good car, and that is not what the agency finds when it does this sort of thing.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: I disagree with Mike Brownlee's interpretation. He says that if it doesn't stand out as different, then- and it's- there's some comparability with other vehicles, then you can't find it defective. I disagree with that. I think if a vehicle has a propensity to roll over and is killing people in significant numbers, unlike most of the vehicles on the road, then you can say this vehicle's defective, and maybe three or four others are defective, as well.
NARRATOR: The chief of NHTSA at the time, Bush appointee General Jerry Curry, cheered his agency's Bronco II decision as a victory for consumer choice.
JERRY CURRY, NHTSA Administrator (1989-1992): I have an SUV because I live on a mountain. And I like to go off road where I live. And I think people like me want that kind of vehicle. Should I have the right to buy that vehicle? Absolutely. Should the manufacturers then make that kind of vehicle? Yes. Is it more dangerous than a vehicle that is lower and wider? Yes. I'll take the trade-off.
INTERVIEWER: But, General, 90 percent, above 90 percent of the people who buy SUVs never go off road with them. And is it your contention that those ninety percent of the people don't deserve protection from rollover but that they ought to know, just intuitively or commonsensically, that these things are more dangerous and accept that risk?.
JERRY CURRY: My contention is that the American people are not stupid. They buy what they want to buy. They know that vehicle is higher. And if in all of the TV press you've gotten over the last 20 years, you don't now know that an SUV is not like a car, something is wrong with you!
[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]
NARRATOR: People did buy SUVs, and they continued to roll over. During the next 10 years, more than 1,000 people would die in Bronco II rollover crashes alone.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: The Bronco II was the big investigation. It was the bad actor. And when the agency refused to do a recall of that vehicle, it gave a pass to every other SUV. It essentially sent a message to Detroit, "You can make your SUV as rollover-prone as you want to. This agency is not going to find that's a defect."
NARRATOR: Back at Ford, designers were busy building the next-generation SUV, code-named UN-46. This vehicle would ultimately be called Explorer.
MARTIN GOLDFARB: Explorer was a vehicle to replace the Bronco II or to grow from the Bronco II because the Bronco II had a limited audience. It was more a male, single, or young couple vehicle. Well, this was going to be a family vehicle, but gave you that same sport environment, that same outdoor feeling that a Bronco II did.
NARRATOR: But the Explorer's engineers couldn't get away from the problems of the Bronco II. Just eight months before Explorer was to roll off the assembly line, Bronco II failed handling tests conducted by Consumer Reports magazine. The magazine warned readers away from the vehicle.
Alarmed, Ford engineers raced out to the company's Arizona proving grounds to put the Explorer prototype through the same test. Roger Simpson was the project manager on the Explorer. He explained the tests in a later rollover lawsuit.
ATTORNEY: In 1989, sir, was it Ford's goal, as far as you knew, to pass the Consumers Union test- that is, to go through the course without experiencing wheel lift?
ROGER SIMPSON, Ford Explorer Project Manager: Ford's goal was to subject the UN-46 prototypes to that test procedure to determine what effect it might have on a new product that we were about to put into the marketplace, so that if and when Consumer Reports were to repeat that test on a production vehicle subsequent to Job 1, we wouldn't have any surprises.
NARRATOR: But there were surprises. When Ford put the Explorer prototypes through the Consumers Union test, they repeatedly tipped up off the ground. Ford engineers scrambled to find a fix.
KEITH BRADSHER, "The New York Times": The problem was that while you could make some tweaks, like changing the pressure in the tires, like changing the suspension springs, the biggest change that you can make to make a vehicle more stable is to widen the wheel track. And you cannot widen the wheel track on a sport utility vehicle without basically scrapping it and starting over.
1st ATTORNEY: Would you agree with me that widening the UN-46 two inches would have made it less likely to roll over?
ROGER SIMPSON: Generally, that is a directional improvement to vehicle stability. That's correct.
1st ATTORNEY: A directional improvement. Does that mean it makes it more safe and more stable?
2nd ATTORNEY: Object to the form of the question.
ROGER SIMPSON: It means that it goes in that direction. Yes, sir. How much it would improve it, I do not know.
NARRATOR: Ford's management, under Don Petersen, who declined to talk to FRONTLINE, again decided - as it had in the case of the Bronco II - to make a series of smaller fixes. But the company refused to widen the vehicle.
ATTORNEY: One of the reasons it was unacceptable to widen the track two inches was because of the $500 million-plus investment that Ford had sunk into the Explorer by this time and the need to get a return on that investment?
ROGER SIMPSON: That was one of the reasons.
TAB TURNER, Plaintiff Attorney: They came to a fork in the road. "Do we fix this vehicle and take the time to do it right and save people's lives, or do we go in this direction and cosmetically fix the vehicle, but having full knowledge of the risk that it's going to place the consumer in?" And they chose to cosmetically fix the vehicle instead of really fixing the vehicle.
MARTIN GOLDFARB: The reality is there are choices to make. They wanted to produce a product that would sell to this segment of the market at this price point. You couldn't put everything in it that you want. Something had to come out. And management has to make those choices. But to assume that management is morally irresponsible because they don't put everything they know about safety in every vehicle is, I think, being unfair.
NARRATOR: The Ford Explorer rolled out right on schedule in March, 1990. Big enough for families, with the outdoor appeal of the Bronco II, Explorer would quickly become the best-selling SUV in the world and help ignite an SUV boom.
MARTIN GOLDFARB: Explorer was really a force for change. It was a totally different conception of car because there was no such thing as that size car before, yet it fulfilled a whole set of physical and psychological needs that nobody else had done before. Explorer did it, really did it big-time.
NARRATOR: But the SUV bonanza was almost over before it began. Only months after the Explorer's debut, America went to war in the Persian Gulf.
Pres. GEORGE H.W. Bush: This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, the issue of America's dependence on foreign oil was front and center.
Sen. RICHARD BRYAN (D-NV), 1989-2001: When Saddam Hussein's tanks crossed the Kuwaiti border, he woke America from her long slumber. No one should any longer entertain any thoughts that our dependence on foreign oil is cost-free.
NARRATOR: Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada proposed to raise gas mileage requirements - called CAFE - 40 percent by the year 2001, and include the new class of SUVs. The Bryan bill drew support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Sen. RICHARD BRYAN: It made so much sense. From my perspective, it was a win-win-win. It was a win in terms of energy independence and national security, in terms of the environment, and it also saved motorists potentially hundreds of dollars of year on their gasoline bills.
NARRATOR: The Bryan bill would have made gas-guzzling sport utilities an expensive liability for auto makers, delivering what might have been a fatal blow to Detroit's most promising new market.
DAN BECKER, Sierra Club: The auto industry reacted to the Bryan bill as if Godzilla had come down to eat Detroit. They went utterly ballistic. They sent armies of lobbyists to the hill. They sent out massive mailings to all of the auto dealers. And they literally stopped the production line at auto companies and gave an extra coffee break if you would go and call your senator- "Here's the phone."
NARRATOR: As NHTSA administrator, it would be up to Jerry Curry to enforce the new, tougher fuel-efficiency standards. But Curry believed the only way to meet the new rules would be to make cars smaller and therefore less safe.
JERRY CURRY: There's only two questions you ask: Are you saving lives? Are you preventing serious injuries? I said, "Does CAFE safe lives, prevent serious injuries?" My engineers all stood up and they said, "Absolutely not." They said, "We're killing people with CAFE." Says, "This kills people on the highways." And I said, "You mean I'm responsible for killing Americans, and the Americans don't even know that I'm doing this because the Congress told me?" And they said, "Yes. That's right." And I said, "Well the American people are going to know if I can inform them."
NARRATOR: Curry decided to use his agency to fight the Bryan bill. He commandeered an ongoing series of NHTSA tests, ordering crashes between one of the largest cars and two of the smallest.
JERRY CURRY: I was trying to give a message to the American people and the message is if you crash a big car into a little car, the folks in the little car suffer. That was the message I was trying.
NARRATOR: Curry released the video with this narration track.
[NHTSA crash test video]
ANNOUNCER: 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.
NARRATOR: The narration specifically attacked the Bryan bill.
ANNOUNCER: These two accidents graphically illustrate that the laws of physics can not be set aside by well-intentioned but ill-advised legislation. What happens when cars are made smaller? Draw your own conclusions.
INTERVIEWER: Would it have been unusual to have a narration track put on a crash test like this?.
JERRY CURRY: I don't know if it- it probably was unusual to do it. I think it was a great idea to do it. I liked it. I thought it was the right thing. I thought the message ought to go out, and I thought that would help the message. So the answer is I'm in favor of it, whether it's, you know, the thing that's normally done or not. It's a good idea.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: NHTSA crash tests don't have narration. So this was an advocacy, that they turned this technical crash test into an advocacy piece, And- but they did something that's even worse, which is that they gave it to a lobby group to use to lobby against a bill in the Congress.
NARRATOR: That group was called the Coalition for Vehicle Choice. It was funded by the auto industry and headed up by Curry's predecessor as NHTSA administrator, Diane Steed.
[Detroit Economic Club speech]
DIANE STEED: The Coalition for Vehicle Choice was formed to oppose the fuel economy regulations or the fuel economy proposals that are currently being considered in Congress.
NARRATOR: Curry denies having provided the footage to the coalition. Nevertheless, shortly after the release of the crash test video, the group was making use of the graphic imagery in a national ad campaign attacking the Bryan bill.
[coalition for vehicle choice television commercial]
ANNOUNCER: While smaller cars can save gas, U.S. government safety experts say they could cost you something far more precious. Fuel economy is important, but safety is vital. [on screen: "Paid for by the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, representing more than 200 automotive and other business, consumer, farm and safety organizations."]
Sen. RICHARD BRYAN: It is deplorable public policy, and it is politics at its worst, to set up a test to frighten the public, that automobiles, if this legislation were enacted, would not be safe. That's wrong, and that's clearly an abuse of the agency.
Sen. DONALD RIEGEL (D), Michigan: We have to decide in our mind how safe a car do you want versus how fuel-efficient a car do you want.
NARRATOR: Using the safety argument, Michigan Democrat Donald Riegel led a successful filibuster killing the Bryan bill.
NARRATOR: With the threat of regulation past and with gas prices down, consumers flocked to the SUV during the decade of the 90s. Bigger was once again better.
NARRATOR: Out rolled such heavyweights as the Cadillac Escalade, the GMC Denali and Lincoln Navigator. And to top them all, a civilian Humvee.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Now let me tell you a little bit about the H-2. It's basically ruggedness with luxury. That's what I call it.
DAN BECKER: It's what I call the throw-weight argument of auto sales. If you see that somebody else has a bigger vehicle than yours, then you need to get an even bigger one. People are being inveigled into getting into bigger and bigger armored vehicles in order to engage each other on the highway.
NARRATOR: In fact, the growing size of SUVs has dealt a grim twist to the safety argument used to defeat the Bryan bill. People were dying not because car makers were forced to build smaller vehicles, but because they had built them larger and larger.
KEITH BRADSHER, "The New York Times": The Explorer and other sport utilities are built in such a way that makes them extremely dangerous to cars. In fact, a federal study found that the Explorer is 16 times as likely as the typical family car to kill the other driver in a crash. The incompatibility of SUVs with cars, their tendency to drive over the bumpers and door sills during collisions, is a classic example of a huge auto safety problem that falls through the cracks of our defect-oriented approach to automotive safety.
NARRATOR: The explosion in larger vehicles, led by the SUV, has also reversed a trend toward better overall fuel economy. Today, cars sold in America get the lowest gas mileage in 20 years. But for auto makers, there was a powerful incentive to build bigger SUVs. The bigger the SUV, the bigger the pay-off.
KEITH BRADSHER: The profits were enormous because you were basically selling a pick-up truck for a luxury car price. It cost them $20,000, and they were selling them for $30,000 and $35,000 apiece.
CAR SHOW VISITOR: What's about the range for a fully loaded Mountaineer?
SALESMAN: $35,000, $35,000.
CAR SHOW VISITOR: And this one?.
KEITH BRADSHER: Auto makers' stock prices were zooming because of the profits they made. One factory that makes the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator was making more profits than any other factory in any other industry in the world and was making more profits than all but several dozen entire corporations in the world. That's how profitable this business was.
[Ford Explorer owner's guide videotape]
MAN: Hello, and welcome to the exciting world of Ford Explorer!
NARRATOR: Despite the rollover problems of SUVs, auto makers marketed them directly to families though they seemed well aware of the potential dangers. Ford distributed videos like this with new Explorers.
MAN: One of the things you should remember when driving a four-by-four is that it handles differently from a passenger car, especially when fully loaded. That's because four-by-fours are designed and built to be used under off-road driving conditions. Because of the extra clearance needed by off-road vehicles, they have a higher center of gravity, requiring extra caution when driving through emergency situations.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the drivers of these cars are aware that they are tippy and can roll over more easily?.
MICHAEL BROWNLEE, NHTSA Official (1978-1997): I'm not sure they're fully aware. I believe everybody thinks they're a better driver than they actually are. And the old notion that "I'm a good driver. I can handle anything, even if it's a sport utility vehicle," just doesn't- doesn't hold up. We're not nearly as proficient on the road as we think we are. And the tendency of vehicles to roll is going to show itself in accident statistics, death and injury and human suffering, clearly.
[Ford Explorer owner's guide videotape]
MAN: Good luck with your new Explorer!
WOMAN: Enjoy yourself!
MAN: And always buckle up.
INTERVIEWER: Would you buy an SUV?.
MICHAEL BROWNLEE: I probably would not. Now, I've owned SUVs in the past, but I would not have an SUV at this point, I don't believe. I think they're just inherently too unsafe.
NARRATOR: As sales of SUVs rocketed through the decade of the 90s, death by SUV rollover marched steadily upward from 700 a year at the beginning of the decade to nearly 2,000 a year by the end, just as overall highway fatalities were on the decline.
Dozens of SUVs that rolled over ended up here, in Tab Turner's Little Rock warehouse. Now they are evidence in lawsuits against auto makers.
TAB TURNER: With a Chevy S10 Blazer or a Nissan Pathfinder or a Mitsubishi Montero or a Kia Sportage, every one of these vehicles has a rollover problem associated them.
NARRATOR: For two decades, Turner and other plaintiff lawyers had sued the auto makers over the stability of their SUVs but were frustrated by the results. The value of their settlements had been limited, they believed, by years of NHTSA decisions on rollover.
TAB TURNER: They'd open up an investigation, and very shortly thereafter, they would close the investigation. And they would write some report, much like they did in the Bronco II, where they said, "There is no reason for us to believe we're going to find anything wrong with this," put a stamp of approval on, send it out. And the next day, the bad guys are showing up in the courtroom, holding up this report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and literally shoving it down my client's throat.
NARRATOR: But then Turner and other lawyers caught a break. Beginning in the mid-1990s, something started to go wrong with one SUV model, the best-selling Ford Explorer. A defective Firestone tire began to unravel, triggering rollovers. Suddenly, the lawyers had a clear defect to take to court.
TAB TURNER: I've done it both ways, and I can tell you it's much easier to convince people the tire is defective. Most people don't expect driving down the roadway that your tire is going to peel apart. But on the other hand, with regard to the vehicle, we're attacking the entire design of somebody's vehicle.
NARRATOR: The tire cases threatened high jury verdicts, so Ford and Firestone paid growing amounts to settle them in secret. And the problem stayed out of the public eye until one rollover victim refused to settle quietly.
Cathy Taylor lost her 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, in 1998. On the way to a homecoming game, the Ford Explorer Jessica was riding in rolled over on a Texas highway after its Firestone tire failed.
CATHY TAYLOR, Rollover Victim's Mother: I could not have just kept my mouth shut because then I would be just as responsible because I knew something was going on. And I would be just as responsible as Firestone and Ford because they knew something was going on.
NARRATOR: Taylor took her story public, appearing in this broadcast linking Firestone tires with Ford Explorer rollovers.
ANNA WERNER, KHOU-TV: A Ford Explorer and a Firestone radial ATX tire with what's called a tread separation. That's when this tread literally peels off the tire.
CATHY TAYLOR: She said, "Mom, I love you. And I'll see you tomorrow."
ANNA WERNER: The Ford Explorer flipped three times, and Jessica was killed.
NARRATOR: When the story broke, Tab Turner saw a golden opportunity.
TAB TURNER: I spent a lot of time litigating this vehicle over the last 10 years, and so I had documents, I had information. I had things that people were interested in obtaining.
NARRATOR: For years, Turner had accepted confidentiality agreements when settling with the two companies, helping to keep the story secret. Now he eagerly fed the bubbling scandal.
TAB TURNER: In essence, we're talking about a summary of two things- the bad tires and the bad vehicle. There has never, ever been a problem as severe as this, from the standpoint of fatalities and injuries.
KEITH BRADSHER: We were offered not just 25-page chronologies with quotes from various internal documents that they have been gathering for the last four years, but even the documents themselves - huge, long lists of documents that we could order from the trial lawyers' warehouses, giving all kinds of missteps that Firestone and Ford took along the way. It was a story on a platter.
NARRATOR: Even though Ford-Firestone accounted for just 300 of more than 12,000 SUV rollover deaths since 1990, it became a huge story.
NEWSCASTER: Federal safety officials today raised the estimate of deaths possibly linked to those recalled Firestone SUV tires.
NEWSCASTER: More fallout tonight from the Firestone tire recall.
NEWSCASTER: The government said today that more people may have died because of faulty Firestone tires than was previously-
INTERVIEWER: Did it surprise you that it became such a big deal?.
TAB TURNER: Well, what surprised me was that there was that much interest generated because, in all honesty, I mean, when you look at- when you objectively look at this situation, I mean, we're talking about what, a little bit over one-eighth or one-ninth of the entire rollover problem involving the Explorer. And were focusing this much attention on such a small piece of the pie.
CONGRESSMAN: Do you have any objection to testifying under oath?
JOHN LAMPE, Firestone CEO: No, sir.
CONGRESSMAN: In that case, if you'll please raise your right hand.
NARRATOR: And it was the small piece of the SUV rollover problem that would dominate what happened in Washington. The scandal that Turner had helped spark came to a head at the final congressional hearing in June,2 2001.
JOHN LAMPE: There is something wrong with the Ford Explorer. The testing and accident data we have submitted prove it.
NARRATOR: Firestone hoped to turn the hearings to the design problems of the SUV.
Rep. JAMES GREENWOOD (R-PA), Chairman: These events have raised much broader questions about the safety in general and possible design flaws in the rollover of compact SUVs.
NARRATOR: Ford descended on the hearings in force, bringing with it an army of lobbyists. The company even hired three former NHTSA administrators, including Diane Steed and Jerry Curry.
KEITH BRADSHER: This was not a fair lobbying fight. Ford came into this with one of the largest lobbying apparatuses in America.
Rep. JOHN DINGELL (D), Michigan: Are you telling me that there were no changes in the tires that Firestone was selling to Ford for Explorers?
NARRATOR: Inside the hearings, Ford was helped by powerful friends among the congressmen on the committee.
Rep. JOHN DINGELL: You tell me that none of these changes in tire structures were cost-cutting?
JOHN LAMPE: I said I can't say that, sir. But I don't believe you're in a position to be able to say that, either.
Rep. JOHN DINGELL: I'm not saying- you're-
JOHN LAMPE: I don't think either one of us know.
Rep. JOHN DINGELL: Mr. Lampe, you're the witness, not i.
JOHN LAMPE: Yes, sir.
KEITH BRADSHER: Firestone did not even have a Washington lobbying office. They came into this with really very little preparation, very few connections to members of Congress. And they were caught flat-footed.
NARRATOR: So Congress focused nearly all its attention on the Firestone tire.
Rep. FRED UPTON (R), Michigan: You can see that they're about ready to separate.
NARRATOR: NHTSA followed suit, requiring Firestone to recall millions of clearly defective tires-but ruling that the Explorer was no more dangerous than other SUVs. In the year following the scandal, Bridgestone, the parent company of Firestone, lost $1.6 billion.
Ford's strategy had worked, although it did not escape without damage. The company budgeted $3 billion for its own recall of Firestone tires, and its Explorer lost market share, though it remains the best-selling SUV in the world.
BRIAN O'NEILL, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: I think the public is going to come away with several messages. I think the first message is that there are problems with Firestone tires. So I think Firestone is hurting badly out of this. The second message is that Ford Explorers seem to have a problem, and therefore the Explorer name is going to be hurt by this.
I would like the third message to be that SUVs have a stability problem. I'm not clear- it's not clear to me how strongly that last message is coming through because this really should tell the public that there are problems not just with Ford Explorers and Firestones, but there are problems with many SUVs.
NARRATOR: Last year, despite the scandal, Americans bought more SUVs than ever before.
CAR SHOW VISITOR: Well, I think that all cars are built to be safe these days. So I think when looking at the cars, every single one of them is going to be safe.
[www.pbs.org: Facts that SUV buyers should know]
NARRATOR: Having resisted for more than a decade, Ford finally widened the Explorer by two inches, just what its own engineers had originally recommended. Ironically, Ford says the primary reason for widening the Explorer was not safety but passenger comfort.
INTERVIEWER: You lowered and widened the 2002 model, why did you do that?
JACQUES NASSER, Ford CEO 1991-2001: If you look at the 2002 model, one of the reasons that it's a larger vehicle is because we wanted to put a third- row rear seat. We also put independent rear suspension in the back. The widening and third-row rear seat are very minor changes. I wouldn't consider that to be a significant event for the Explorer. It's an improvement. I mean, if we didn't, you'd be asking me, "Well, why didn't you improve it after ten years? Why didn't you take advantage of new technology? Why didn't you make some changes?"
INTERVIEWER: So the widening of the 2002 was at least in part a safety, stability issue or not?
JACQUES NASSER: No.
NARRATOR: For whatever reason, many SUVs are now being designed lower and wider, just as some at NHTSA called for 15 years ago.
ANNA HARWIN, NHTSA Engineer 1986-1990: As each generation of vehicle comes onto the market, they're a little bit wider, a little bit lower. They're learning. Slowly.
INTERVIEWER: So essentially, we could have avoided 12 years, the entire Explorer's life, as an example, of this problem had we done then what's happening today.
ANNA HARWIN: Absolutely.
NARRATOR: In the wake of the Ford-Firestone scandal, the rollover issue has begun to fade from public and political attention. In the Texas capitol, one small group of people who have been devastated by rollovers are trying to keep the issue alive.
CATHY TAYLOR: Yes. My name is Cathy Taylor. I lost my 14-year-old daughter, Jessica Taylor, in a 1998 Ford Explorer rollover.
NARRATOR: The latest statistics show that rollovers remain the most deadly accidents on the highway.
ROLLOVER VICTIM: We were on our family vacation. I was driving. Our car went into a violent fishtail, rolled over three or four times. Our daughter, Brittany, died.
NARRATOR: Every year, SUV rollover deaths climb about 10 percent.
SUV SAFETY ACTIVIST: We're working with Firestone victims today on a bill which essentially would make sure that the irresponsible businesses that decide-
NARRATOR: This year there will be an estimated 70,000 SUV rollovers in the United States.
SUV SAFETY ACTIVIST: -can be held accountable if they decide to do that. [sound of crash] Oh, my God!
NARRATOR: It was an SUV rollover. This one happened less than a block from our cameras.
1st POLICE OFFICER: You breathing OK, ma'am? No problems with your breathing?
2nd POLICE OFFICER: We're right here now. Get you out in just a minute, OK?
INTERVIEWER: See this often, where these SUVs just roll over from a low-speed impact like this?
3rd POLICE OFFICER: Seeing them lately. We're seeing them lately, yeah.
NARRATOR: The tires were not made by Firestone. The SUV was not a Ford Explorer. This driver would survive, but in the coming year, a projected 2,000 people will die in SUV rollovers.
Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV
Written, Produced and Directed by
& Marc Shaffer
Director of Photography
Michael H. Amundson
21st Century Forensic Animations
The Mexican Cultural Institute
Scott Pickey-WRAL Raleigh
Library of Congress
NBC News Archives
Marketplace, a production of Minnesota Public Radio
Byron Bloch Auto Safety Archives
Jimmy Carter Library
Ronald Reagan Library
George Bush Presidential Library
Michael H. Amundson
Erin Martin Kane
Douglas D. Milton
WEBSITE EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
Louis Wiley Jr.
A FRONTLINE Coproduction with 10/20 Productions, LLC
© 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
ANNOUNCER: Now a program update. In last month's program, An Ordinary Crime, we left Terence Garner in prison, facing 35 years for a crime he insists he didn't commit. His appeal for a new trial had been rejected at the highest level of the North Carolina courts.
TERENCE GARNER: I was lost, you know, after they told me I wasn't going to get a new trial or I wasn't going to be free of all charges. I didn't know what to do.
ANNIE GAINES, Terence Garner's Grandmother: We all went- all of us got disappointed. [weeps]
ANNOUNCER: His family had given up hope. The judge was convinced of his guilt.
OFRA BIKEL: Did you ever have second thoughts?
Judge KNOX V. JENKINS, Jr.: No. Absolutely not. Never.
ANNOUNCER: But three weeks after the broadcast, on February 5th, Terence Garner was set free. Over 5,000 viewers had written letters to Terence, his family and to North Carolina officials. The judge agreed to recuse himself, and a motion for a new trial was granted. On Monday, February 11, he started his first day in college on a full scholarship.
This report continues on FRONTLINE's Web site, where you'll find facts you should know before buying an SUV, a round-up of decisions on the Ford Explorer, Oval Office audiotape of Richard Nixon's 1971 meeting with Ford executives, and find out on the Web site if this program is re-airing on your station and when at PBS on line, pbs.org.
Next time on FRONTLINE: There once was a monster in Hollywood that gobbled up the movie studios, the theaters and even the TV networks. The monster kept eating up everything until there was no profit left to make, even for the monster. Next time on FRONTLINE.
For videocassette information about Rollover, call PBS Video at 1-800-328-PBS1. [$19.98 plus S&H]
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