rollover: the hidden history of the suv
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interview: joan claybrook
She is the president of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971. From 1977 to 1981, under President Jimmy Carter, she headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Here, she offers her perspective on the history of NHTSA and its record in auto-safety regulation, including her views on how NHTSA has handled the SUV rollover issue and the role that plaintiff lawyers and safety advocates have come to play. This interview was conducted in April 2001.

Was there a change in the 1960s in the view toward what makes automobiles safe or unsafe? It seems there was a philosophical debate, or even war, going on between Ralph Nader (and people like yourself on that side of the spectrum) and the industry. Describe that for me. What were the differences of opinion here? Why hadn't we had an agency like NHTSA prior to this?

The auto industry had been very successful, whenever pressure started to build up to have regulation, in helping to create fallacious front groups, side groups -- whatever you want to call them -- that took some of the heat off. And so they would create the President's Highway Safety Commission or ... endorse the National Safety Council to do something.

But the whole theme of the auto industry in regard to auto crashes was "the life you save may be your own." It's all the driver's fault -- "the nut behind the wheel." Those were words that just were repeated and repeated and repeated. And driver education was the big remedy, learning how to be a decent driver. That was the solution to not being killed in an auto crash. And the other element of this had to do with liability law. Until that time, you really couldn't sue the manufacturer directly. ...

What happened in the mid-1960s was that a doctor named William Haddon, who became the first NHTSA administrator, was doing a great deal of work on the issue of crash worthiness. He analytically took the ... auto crash and divided it into three parts. And he said there's the pre-crash, which is bad weather, bad tires, sleepy drivers, drunk drivers. There's the crash itself, which has to do with whether you have a seat belt, have an air bag, have padded dashboards, whether you have head restraints, good seats -- the whole element of whether you get injured in a crash. And then there's post-crash, which is whether there's a fire or whether you're extracted and readily given medical services. So you take this instantaneous event and you divide it into three analytical parts, and then you can apply your remedies.

Ralph Nader thought this was quite a brilliant concept. Haddon only took it to the analytical stage, and Nader took it to the next stage, which was to write it into the law. And so he got the drafters of the legislation to require that the safety standards issued by this new agency cover the likelihood of being involved in a crash and the injuries that occur in the crash itself -- the crash-worthiness of the vehicle.

I think if a vehicle has a propensity to roll over and it's killing people in significant numbers -- unlike most of the vehicles on the road -- then you can say this vehicle's defective.

When that happened, when that law [the Auto Safety Act] was passed in 1966, it affected the liability law. And that was where you first saw the explosion of liability responsibility to the manufacturers directly to the consumer. Because in the Larson case in 1967, the judge said, "This vehicle was not designed to be crash-worthy, and the injuries that occurred to the consumer were a direct result of the decisions made by the manufacturer." ... This was the first time that a judge had articulated that an auto company was liable to the consumer for not having protected them against injury, unreasonable injury. And so it caused an explosion in auto litigation, because now there was a new theory for holding the manufacturers responsible. And of course, it has never stopped.

Was it a big deal -- taking on the auto industry at that point?

It was a huge deal. This was an enormous industry. They had never been regulated. The only advantage that we had was that they didn't have a really good lobbying staff in Washington, because they weren't really regulated. So it wasn't a priority of guys in Detroit to have a big staff in Washington and know everything that was going on.

And they had, I would say, really second- and third-rate lobbyists. And that's why they hired Lloyd Cutler, because they had to have a master sergeant who knew his way around. They called me "the dragon lady" because I looked like a prissy schoolteacher, and I was sitting there trying to get criminal penalties for this industry. ...

How important are those lawsuits, and how much of a strategy did those suits become in advocating for safety?

Lawsuits are incredibly important for a number of reasons. One is because the trial lawyers don't get paid unless they win, so they really go after the information -- in fact, better than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration often does. They have access under discovery rules to get almost anything they want, and they also have learned after long experience to share with each other. ...

One of the problems is that the companies have gotten wise to all of this, and so they've asked for gag orders or protective orders to keep the information secret. So of course what the consumer groups have done is we've gone to the judge after a case is finished and asked for them to open up the protective order, because we say that this is important health and safety information. We don't do it in every case, obviously, but we have done it in some critical cases, including the Bronco II, the predecessor to the Ford Explorer.

The lawsuits gather information. They result in sanctioning the company -- sometimes with big punitive damages, which are a deterrent. And they're very important because the auto companies make a cost-benefit calculation that they're not going fix something unless it's going to cost them more not to. ...

It's a terrible thing in terms of public policy. And so these lawsuits force them -- prematurely, before they want to -- to redesign, fix and recall some of these vehicles or other products, and also to disclose information.

Is there something out of whack, in the sense that private lawyers representing an injured party are more capable of getting relevant safety information out of a car company than the public agency, NHTSA, responsible for protecting us and recalling vehicles and making sure they're designed to particular standards? Does it bother you that the lawyers have more power to obtain this information than the federal government seems to have?

Well, I don't think they have more power; I think it's how they use their power. The federal government has plenty of power, but it hasn't used it. ... I think it's a matter of whether the agency uses its authority, and not a matter of whether it has authority. It has plenty of subpoena power that we got passed in 1974 in an amendment to the law. And so it's whether or not the agency goes after information. ...

But it's true that the trial lawyer has this incredible financial incentive -- and survival incentive, if you would -- to make sure that they get all the information. The level of information and detail that they know about a particular case and a particular product when they're about to go into trial is stunning. I myself don't think I ever knew as much about a particular item as they do before they go to that trial.

And you were administrator of NHTSA.

Right.

So what you're saying then is that that these lawyers -- because they have to take financial risks themselves in mounting their case and because there's a pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow should they be successful -- that there's this kind of marketplace incentive that these guys become quasi safety regulators, or marketplace regulators? Is that right?

That is true, but there is a difference. You still need to have the safety standards. But there are two different parts of the auto safety statute. One is the issuance of safety standards: the requirements for air bags, for seatbelts, for vehicle crash-worthiness.

And then you have defects. Defects are failures of design or manufacturing -- particular problems, and often they're never going to be covered ... by a safety standard, because they're just a little piece. ...

But in summary, the agency has tremendous authority to get information. It has been very passive under the Reagan, Bush and even in the Clinton years, much more than it ever should have been, and so it hasn't used its authority. But it certainly needs to get early warning data, which it now has authorized in law. It could've done it before, but now it's required to do it. And so it should now be much more tuned in to the defects on the highway.

So the trial lawyers are going be coming back to the agency, I think, in the future, looking for information -- whereas in recent years they've been more suppliers of information, or they've had the information first.

The lawyers can only really go after defects -- isn't that right?

Right. ...

Explain to me what lawyers can do and what they cannot do, and therefore where NHTSA or other people have to sort of get into the game a little bit.

I do believe that there's a symbiotic relationship between the regulatory agency and the plaintiff lawyers. They do overlap -- there's no question about that.

In some cases, as in the Firestone tires or as in the Pinto, there's actually a safety standard that's already in existence -- inadequate, but there. The lawyers have a tougher job when there is a safety standard that exists because the companies will come in and say, "We meet the federal standard," even though the federal standard may be totally out of date and useless. So that they have another hurdle they have to go over. ...

[But] they help to stop death and injuries, the trial lawyers do. The trial lawyers help to stop death and injuries on the highway that result from defective elements of a vehicle. ...

You've been following auto safety since the 1960s. Obviously, we've established that you've been through a string of high-profile auto defect questions -- the Corvair, the Pinto, on and on -- you name it. Where does [Ford-Firestone] rank in terms of public reaction?

The Firestone-Ford Explorer scandal is off the charts. ...

You mentioned that in the early 1990s, but generally [since then], there's been a very anti-regulatory environment, and there were a lot of issues on the table that needed to be addressed. And the [Firestone] tire became a vehicle, if you will, in real political terms, to get these guys to do the right thing on Capitol Hill. Is that right?

No question. One of the things that happened in mid-1990s was that several members of Congress started going after NHTSA, badgering them for doing recalls. Chrysler's President Eaton came down and incited members of Congress, and they started picking on the agency, and almost passed legislation cutting back its authority.

So the agency was very intimidated about its regulatory muscle. And so this was a great opportunity to say the agency has been underfunded; it's been underpowered; it hasn't had the incentive to do this job; it's been picked on by members of Congress. You know, "Free NHTSA! Let it do its job! "...

They key point is that, from a strategic standpoint, they have lobbyists, and you're a lobbyist. There's a game in Washington that's played in terms of this battle between the folks who want the "market" to do everything and the folks who think there's a role for regulation, the pro-industry folks and the pro-consumer folks. And you guys have been playing defense for a while, haven't you?

[Ford-Firestone] was a very important opportunity, because we had been playing defense on regulatory issues. There'd been regulatory rollback bills being pressed. Republican administrations under [Reagan] and Bush had done virtually nothing on the regulatory side. There was a long unfinished agenda of things that needed to be done. The industry was using all of its power through its campaign contributions in other areas to stop regulatory activity. And they'd been very successful.

So this was an opportunity to reverse the course and to say, "We need regulation. Here is what's happened when you don't have regulation -- people get killed. Your neighbors, your friends. And we need to have increased standards. These standards are 30 years old; they've never been updated. The law's not being enforced. The agency is passive; it's intimidated; it's underfunded."

Congress had to react. The spotlight was on them, and they had to react. And they did. ...

The press perception of these companies is very important to them?

Their image is incredibly important. It can determine whether or not they can sell vehicles, whether or not they get bonuses, whether or not they have to recall cars. They didn't used to pay attention to the press at all, but now they pay assiduous attention to the press.

So the media is another one of these key players. We talked about lawyers. We talked about you and your group. The third piece really is the news media, isn't it?

The news media is extremely important. And interestingly, they've not been very interested in the regulatory process over the last decade or more. They occasionally will pay attention to it, but then they sort of fade away.

And in fact, at The Washington Post during the Reagan years, when I went and complained about their lack of coverage, of the fact that they didn't do anything in the regulatory agencies, the admission was made, "Well, when nothing's going on, we don't cover it." And I said, "But the lack of their doing anything is the issue."

So it is interesting that the Firestone case just generated a tremendous amount of media interest. And it actually changed the media. ... It changed the media because they realized that trial lawyers have a lot of documentation that they never knew about, and so they're now seeking it from trial lawyers trying to get their own unique stories. ... I think that it reminded a lot of everyday reporters that these are fascinating stories that the public cares about. ...

You mentioned earlier the work you had done on airbags, and helping lawyers to find ways to litigate these issues. Without necessarily going into the airbag per se, does your organization help work with lawyers, in the sense of trying to build strategies to use the courts as a safety mechanism or as a public interest mechanism? How does that work?

Our work with lawyers is, I would say, happenstantial. If we get an idea that seems to make sense, then we say, "Well, this might influence a policy decision," as we did with airbags. ...

So lawyers are kind of the front line of defense in a way? They are the ones who, in any kind of institutional way, are first on the scene?

They are first on the scene. ... Most people don't sue. ... But when someone is injured and decides to sue, then the lawyer becomes the messenger and gets all the information about a particular problem. And that's when the public starts to hear about it -- when these lawsuits start to build up. ... Often a particular case will be resolved, and it will become public.

One of the problems, of course, is that the companies have a hammerlock around a lot of lawyers, because they insist on gag orders, which then keeps the information quiet. They did that a lot in these Firestone cases. And the public doesn't hear about it -- even though they should have. ...

Is there a breakdown in the system if lawyers are getting information on behalf of clients as their first obligation, and they're not sharing it with the regulator who could act on that information in the public interest? Is the system imperfect in that sense?

I believe that gag orders ought to be prohibited by law so that the lawyer is not put in this conflicted situation. ... [This health and safety information] should not be able to be covered up. So I do believe it's a breakdown of the system.

... I spoke to a woman named Cathy Taylor ... She lost her 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, in a rollover of an Explorer in October 1998. And her attorney Randy Roberts (she subsequently was represented by Tab Turner) managed to get a judge to force Firestone to release a very large number of complaints that it previously hadn't released, which was a key break in the case. She said -- not surprisingly -- she was offered a very large settlement by Ford and Firestone to drop the request for those documents. She refused. ... When I asked her why she did that, she said that had she [in effect] sold the documents back to Firestone, she'd feel responsible for all the [deaths that] could've been prevented had she done the right thing. ... And I'm wondering what you say to that, about the fact that there are clients and lawyers who make this Faustian bargain. It's a difficult thing -- but is there some accountability that falls in their lap, in a sense, for making that choice?

I don't think that the consumer should be blamed for signing a deal to get compensation where they've been terribly injured and they agree to secrecy, because I don't think that that should be allowed to be offered. I think that it's immoral for the companies to do that, and that it should be prohibited by law. And the consumer is in a no-win situation with that, because they may have children who need help. They may themselves need help, and don't have the capacity to handle it financially.

How many years can this drag on? Sometimes if you refuse to settle, these cases drag on for years. And it's very disruptive for the family. It's very hard on everybody. It may mean the kids can't go to school. It means you don't get medical care. I just don't think that it's fair.

So I don't think that people should feel that blame. I praise and laud people who have the capacity and the strength to say, "I'm not going to accept this," and are willing to stick it out. But I think it's unfair that they have to do that.

So is Cathy Taylor exceptional or even heroic in that sense?

She is. She is heroic. Cathy Taylor is heroic. And I know others who have done this. But every person has to look at their own circumstances and the impact on the family and their ability to get their lives back together after these horrible events. And it's bad enough that they go through the tragedy of losing a loved one or having terrible injuries, much less should they carry on their conscience the issue of having agreed to keep the information a secret. ...

Some people would call [your relationship with plaintiff lawyers] an unholy alliance, because you have become the de facto regulatory enforcers in this country. And there are people who think that that's unfortunate, because it creates defensiveness in these companies, it creates secrecy in these companies. They always have the threat of a lawsuit or the threat of a shrill attack from a group like yours hanging over their heads, and it's not the best way to operate. What's your response to that?

If the auto companies did voluntarily what we paid them to do voluntarily, before the regulatory process takes effect or before there's a lawsuit filed, then we wouldn't have to do our job. But the fact is that they don't. The companies have known for years and years about these problems, and they have never addressed them.

So there's only one possible thing to do, which is to hold them accountable. And you hold them accountable by the media, by lawsuits, by regulatory investigations, or by new safety standards. This has been going on now for 35 years. I've been working on this for 35 years.

You would think that these auto companies got the message, and sometimes they seem to. As I've mentioned, I think Ford has a slightly new perspective, which I hope they're able to implement. But by and large, they're the big gorilla on the block, and you have to punch them in the nose and get their attention. ...

As a class of vehicles, are SUVs safe?

SUVs are dangerous vehicles, because they have propensity to roll over. They don't have to be dangerous, but they are. And they should be much safer than cars in the sense that they are bigger and heavier. So when there are two-car crashes, they're the more aggressive vehicle. The occupant should be better off.

But the fact that they roll over with such frequency completely undermines their safety. And when you have a rollover crash, the likelihood of death or injury is enormous. You are not going to walk away from that crash without any injury at all, and more likely than not, you're going to walk away with a severe injury.

Do you think the public gets that? I mean, we just had a big scandal. It's dominated everybody's consciousness. Do you think the public gets this?

I don't know that they get it yet. ... I think that the public today knows more, but it takes a while for things to penetrate, and these vehicles do look safe. They're big and hefty and you think of them as being safe. I don't know the extent to which the public really understands that they're not so safe.

Now, of course, they're being redesigned. And one of the things that is outrageous in my view is that the Department of Transportation does not do a good job of informing the public of the characteristics of motor vehicles. They don't say the 1990 to the 2001 Ford Explorer had this, and now the 2002 has that. ... By and large, the Department of Transportation does not give you much information as a consumer to help you make your own distinctions.

And there are many SUVs that are on the road today -- new SUVs, older SUVs -- who knows the differences between them? Some are safer; some aren't. It's very confusing for the public. ...

Tell me about the history of rollover [within NHTSA]. I'm interested mostly in this thing called the Wirth petition that came up in 1986. What was the Wirth petition?

The Wirth petition was a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do [two] things. One is to have a rule making for rollover prevention, and secondly, to do a defect investigation of rollover of certain vehicles at that time. Congressman [Tim] Wirth was the chairman of the subcommittee in the House Commerce Committee overseeing NHTSA. ... He saw this as a real problem, and asked the agency to undertake this. ...

So Wirth petitioned NHTSA to set some kind of regulation to create more stable vehicles. What was the sentiment on the part of the folks in the trenches [at NHTSA] about whether something should be done about rollover?

The Wirth petition was treated very seriously. This was the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the agency. They had to treat it seriously. And there was a lot of work done among the staff to try and decide what to do. Certain key staff people said, "We have to do such a regulation. It's important. ... And with increasing numbers of vehicles rolling over, we should address this."

But the agency administrator, Diane Steed -- who was appointed by President Reagan -- said, "No." And so it was stopped. ... So while the agency turned down the Wirth petition, within a very short period of time there were more vehicles on the highway that had this propensity to roll over.

Give me a sense of the Reagan administration. Was it a particularly pro-regulation administration?

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. Vice President George Bush was put in charge of the regulatory task force. And within four months of coming into office, [he] had published a list of "Actions to Help Detroit." That's what it was called.

It was regulations or safety standards that they were going to abolish, and environmental regulations as well. And they set about to do that, including air bags and the fields of view -- the vision that the driver has looking out of the vehicle -- and a number of other items. Then there were many pending matters that they completely ignored and never acted on. ...

Should the Wirth petition have been approved?

The Wirth petition should've been approved, and the agency should've immediately initiated rule making to set a standard for vehicle stability.

Had they done that, would SUVs as a class have been banned essentially, and gone out of business?

SUVs would not have been banned if such a standard had been issued on vehicle stability, but they would be different vehicles. They would have a lower center of gravity and a wider track width. And they would be much less likely to roll over. These vehicles, in fact, are not used off-road most of the time, so you don't need them to be so far off the ground.

Certain people like Mike Brownlee have told us that their hands were tied on certain investigations like the Bronco II, because it didn't stand out from its class as being particularly bad. And if he had moved against that, he said, you had to get rid of all of them, and he's not allowed to do that.

[There's a] difference between rule making for a safety standard, and finding a vehicle defective. If you're issuing a safety standard, you can issue a safety standard just to cover light trucks and SUVs, and another one to cover cars. That was established in the very beginning at the agency in 1966.

In fact, most of the early safety standards only applied to cars, and not to light trucks or "multipurpose passenger vehicles," as they were called. The statute itself specifically says you can set a standard by type of vehicle.

In terms of finding the safety defect, I disagree with Mike Brownlee's interpretation. He says that if it doesn't stand out as different and 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 it's 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. ...

What was the Bronco II? Can you describe that vehicle to me, characterize its performance and safety?

The Bronco II was one of the early SUVs built on a pickup truck chassis, and it was smaller than the Ford Explorer. The Ford Explorer essentially was a larger version of the Bronco II. And the Bronco II was highly prone to roll over. There have been huge numbers of lawsuits over their rollover experience of the Bronco II.

There were petitions for investigation of this as a defective vehicle. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration essentially has turned down, I believe, eleven investigations of various SUVs for rollover propensity on the basis that they're no worse than another SUV. And so that's been their rationale for turning down any finding of defect. ...

[Former NHTSA attorney Allan Kam] told us that it was his sense that the Bronco II was a particularly bad SUV in terms of rollovers. And that when the decision was made not to [investigate other SUVs] they'd say, "Well this is no worse than the Bronco II." Basically when the Bronco II investigation was closed, that was it for [regulating] SUVs. What's your point of view?

Yes, I think that's absolutely true. 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 SUVs as rollover-prone as you want to; this agency is not going to find that's a defect." And as long as they didn't issue a safety standard, then the companies had no regulation; there was no regulation of this, and there never was going to be. ...

Help me understand, on the one hand, your philosophy, and on the other hand the philosophy, say, of [your successor at NHTSA], Diane Steed, or any number of people who represent that point of view. Is there a kind of philosophical belief system that separates the two of you in the area of safety and priorities? ...

I believe that the government has a role to play in protecting the public and the public interest. And that means regulation for safety standards and enforcing the law against a corporation. Diane Steed, I think, comes out of a money system, where she believes that business doesn't need to be regulated. And she has done everything that she can to avoid regulation for business.

I'm not sure I view it as philosophical. I think it's more based on the issue of money. I don't have any moneyed interest that guides my thinking, and she does. ...

What do you think of the new ratings based on the static stability factor? Are you in favor of them? Do you think the static stability factor is a good measure of rollover?

I'm not sure it's a great measure of rollover, but it's all we have. I'd rather have something than nothing. I think that we need a dynamic test, an actual dynamic test on the proving ground.

What do you think of the automakers' and their allies' claim that the static stability factor is such a lousy predictor of rollover that we really weren't in a position to do anything until we did have a reasonable measure, that doing something like this is actually a terrible disservice to the public because it just confuses them?

The auto manufacturers are opposed to the static stability factor. The auto manufacturers are opposed to a dynamic rollover test. So they really don't want any tests at all; they just pick apart whatever test is on the table. ...

... There were at least two opportunities or points in the development of the Ford Explorer itself where Ford confronted a choice on how it was going to design the vehicle. The first one [was] when the Bronco II became the Explorer, and the series of proposals made by Ford engineers. The second one [was] when they redesigned the chassis and its suspension. At least in the first case, Ford declined two of the options, because it would have missed Job 1 [the first date of production]. It would have cost them a huge amount of money. In your opinion, was Ford obliged at that moment to do absolutely everything in its power to make their vehicle safer, even if it cost them huge amounts of money?

I don't believe that 1989, when they refused to take their engineering suggestions to lower the center of gravity and widen the track width, was really the moment in time. The moment in time had come at least five years earlier, when they started losing lawsuits because the Bronco II was rolling over. And then they decided to design the new Ford Explorer based on a vehicle that was defective.

They shouldn't have done that. They should have started with a new vehicle and one that had a lower center of gravity that wasn't going to roll over. They knew their primary concern with the new Ford Explorer was whether or not it would roll over. And they thought that they could cheat, that they could use most of the Bronco II, not lower the center of gravity, not widen the track width and still have a good vehicle. And they couldn't.

Was that just because they didn't know the engineering well enough?

Absolutely not; everyone's known. The Wirth petition, filed by a member of Congress who has no engineering experience at all -- 1986, this was four years before Job 1 on the Ford Explorer -- said, "Lower the center of gravity and widen the track width." So everyone knew. This is not rocket science.

So Ford saved tooling costs and they hoped that this vehicle would not have the same rollover problems as the Bronco II. It was a bigger vehicle, so it wasn't as susceptible to rollover. But it was bad, and when they realized that it couldn't pass a very simple avoidance maneuver test, they took the air out of the tires rather than fix the vehicle. ...

I think it was partly because the real regulatory apparatus was dead under the Reagan years. And Ford's attitude, along with all the other auto companies, has always been that you can settle lawsuits, and it's cheaper than investing and redesigning the vehicle itself. ...

The regulatory apparatus from the outside groups did work rather well. In 1991, federal legislation passed which required the Department of Transportation to issue a proposal for a rollover prevention standard. And in 1992, I believe it was, they actually put out an early notice on this. By 1994, they had decided they were just going to issue a consumer information requirement and they'd abandoned it. Then the Republican Congress came in, and we had a long dry period in the legislative process. So you work with what you have.

Ford saw these opportunities of no regulation, and they just kept on manufacturing the same old vehicle, trying to get away with it. And they almost did; they almost got away with it. ...

But it takes a spectacular failure like [the Firestone] tire to force changes in safety. You had this vehicle for years that may have been designed in an inadequate way. Nothing was done. Nothing happened despite maybe the efforts of some lawyers and so forth; but it wasn't until you had this spectacular failure. What does that tell us about our regulatory system, our safety system in this country?

The regulatory system is totally inadequate. I mean, I'm the first to acknowledge that. ... I'm the first to admit that the regulatory process is in need of great repair. And neither the public-interest community nor the trial lawyers nor the media can solve this problem. One of the reasons we have to work together is because that's the only thing that gives us enough power and force and capacity to have any influence in this area.

But in this particular case, it's absolutely right there were spectacular failures which, in combination with a disclosure of information and stupidity on the part of the auto companies and Firestone, gave us the opportunity to raise a stink about this ... And in this case, I think we've had some success -- not enough -- but we've made some change. ...

People buy SUVs because they think they're safer, despite this entire history. ... Why is that? To what extent does the marketing of the vehicle enter in here in the process of convincing the American people that these are safe as vehicles?

The marketing of these vehicles is critical to their sales, because they show these vehicles in rugged work, on off-road adventures and they see them on the highway carrying all the kids to school. They see them on vacations. They see this as "the multi-purpose vehicle for our family," that "We can use it every day. We can use it for special occasions. We can use it when we want to go hunting and fishing." That's the way the public perceives these vehicles. ...

They see them as bigger and sturdier. And in the public mind, [that] is equivalent to safety. ... And their own experience in driving them gives them that feeling. They're luxurious inside, and they are bigger than the rest of the vehicles on the highway, so they feel safer.

Do you really think some rollover ratings are going to make any difference next to the megaphone that is modern car marketing?

I think that you have to have the rollover ratings on the window sticker. And that's what I've always felt -- that in any marketing advice or warning, you always have to have it where the decision is made, and that's in the showroom. My concern about having [it] only be a NHTSA test that then gets published on the Web or maybe in a magazine is that it's not enough. It needs a big megaphone to get that message across.

Of course, this issue came up in the Congress when they were considering the legislation after the Firestone and Ford disaster. And there was huge opposition from the auto dealers and from the manufacturers to having window stickers. They know the potency and power of a window sticker with information that's going to tell the truth to the consumer. ...

Has this vehicle [the SUV] been given a free ride by the regulators? If you could characterize the treatment of this vehicle that's so popular -- that's become America's darling, in terms of dominating the roadway -- has this vehicle become untouchable?

The SUV has become untouchable, but I don't think it's going to last. It's really a lucky vehicle, because it developed and started in the marketplace during the Reagan years, when there was not going to be any regulation of it. The Wirth petition was turned down [in1986]; fuel economy standards were not being upgraded. By the time the Clinton administration came in 1993, it was a very dominant part of that vehicle marketplace. And even then, the Clinton administration was not about to make an enemy of the auto industry.

In fact, the first thing they did was get together and talk about [the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles] -- PNGV, as it's called -- which is the future auto. And it became almost an excuse not to regulate because they said, "Well, we have to look to the far distant future and do research." The auto industry came in 1993 and had this big lovey-dovey press conference with Clinton and Gore.

So this vehicle has just lucked out from the politics, and also it's been very shrewdly protected by the auto industry in its lobbying of Capitol Hill and its avoidance of fuel economy standards, [and in its] cover-up as in the Firestone case with the Ford Explorer, of the dangers of this vehicle and the failure of the agency to even test it for rollover. ...

What's going to change?

I think that the Department of Transportation's dynamic consumer information test, which is yet to come, could make a difference. But unless there's a standard that says you can't perform below this level in terms of rollover, then there probably won't be a lot of change. And although the public certainly did learn something during the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire tragedy, I'm not sure that they associate that with all SUVs -- maybe just with this brand name.

And of course Ford is now trying to bull it through, that is, they've redesigned the Explorer, and they want to have a showing that this is now a safe Explorer; they learned their lesson; they fixed it; and this is a safe Explorer. And we'll see. We'll have to see how it tests out.

...

Where did CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] come from? What was the situation that gave rise to CAFE standards?

In 1973, there was an oil embargo. There was a real shock to the public, because prices started to rise for oil, [and] had a big economic impact. Inflation started to rise. In fact, it really lasted until the early 1980s. And so the Congress, always wanting to be responsive, rushed to pass legislation for fuel efficiency for cars and for light trucks, "multi-purpose passenger vehicles," as they were called. So in 1975, the legislation was signed into law. The first standards had to be issued by July 1977. And the standards were actually laid out for the late 1970s and up to 1980. The administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had to set the standards from 1980 to 1985. For light trucks, there were no numbers in the law. But by 1985, for cars, they had to double the fuel efficiency from the mid-teens to 27-and-a-half miles per gallon. ...

How were the fuel efficiency numbers achieved by [the automakers]? I've heard two different things: one, that they were achieved by downsizing cars; and two, that they were essentially achieved through technological gains. What happened?

The facts speak for themselves. About 85 percent of the improvement was technological. And to the extent that weight was taken out of vehicles, it was taken out of the humongous 5,550-pound Goliaths. They came down to a size still larger than most cars on the road, but much closer in weight, and closer in size. And then there was some shift to more small cars, but not that large a shift. ...

When the legislation was being considered in 1974, the auto companies said, "This is the death of the family car. This is the end of America on the road." They said that everyone would be driving a Pinto and a Vega, and they would never have a real family car again. And of course, that turned out to be totally fallacious, because they didn't have to get rid of their average family car if they only applied technology. ...

We took a full-sized Chevrolet, a six-passenger full-size Chevrolet, a 1977 model, that really hadn't been downsized. We changed the technology and changed some of the fittings and so on, so that we took some weight out of it. And we got it to meet the 27-and-a-half mile per gallon standard. And so that showed Detroit that it wasn't the end of the family car, and they just couldn't make that claim anymore. They stopped.

Who was Senator Richard Bryan?

... He had been the governor of Nevada, the former attorney general of Nevada. He came to Congress in the 1980s. And because no one else wanted it, he got to be the chair of the Consumer Subcommittee in the Senate Commerce Committee. ... He had been a consumer protection advocate as attorney general. And he worked with the consumer groups and he worked with the environmental groups. As chair of that subcommittee, he introduced legislation [in 1989] to increase fuel efficiency to essentially 40 miles per gallon. ...

How did the auto industry react to the Bryan bill? Where did it rank?

The Bryan bill was on their hit list -- number one. They wanted to defeat that bill at all costs, and they initiated a filibuster to defeat it. [With] a filibuster, you have to get 60 votes in the United States Senate, so it's a very tough standard to meet.

What was the Coalition for Vehicle Choice? Where did that come from?

The auto industry had hired the former NHTSA administrator in the Reagan administration, Diane Steed, to put together an industry front group, which they called the Coalition for Vehicle Choice -- which implied that you didn't have a choice of what car to buy if you had fuel economy standards that were any tougher than the existing ones.

It had no individual members and consumers; it just had a lot of subcontractors to the auto industry and associated industries. And Diane Steed was paid $150,000 a year to attack the fuel economy standards and particularly [to attack] the Bryan bill.

And she did this with advertising, with fallacious letters to members of Congress. They would call consumers and say, "This is going to mean you're not going to be able to buy a car. Don't you want to sign this letter?" Or, "Don't you want to make a call to your member of Congress?" I don't know how much money they spent, but it was certainly in the millions of dollars, many millions of dollars. And they also did TV ads. ...

They call it a grassroots group. ... They say that they don't deny auto industry funding, but they say this is giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't have a voice in this debate.

It wasn't a legitimate grassroots group. A legitimate grassroots group is one that's made up of consumers and individuals who have a passion or a concern about a particular issue. This was made up of organizations that are primarily related to -- or dependent upon -- the auto industry. So it was really just an auto industry group that they wanted to call a grassroots group. ...

And what's the significance of [hiring Diane Steed]? Why not?

It's their every right to hire a former government official to do that. She also worked for them on product liability cases as a key witness. So she had two jobs for the auto industry: One, to try and defeat consumers who were injured in auto crashes from recovering; and secondly, to represent the auto industry's position before Congress and in the public medium on fuel economy, and to try and, I think, mislead the public about the real facts.

In fact, you called her a liar.

I did call her a liar, and I think she was a liar. ... She said that people would be less safe if fuel economy standards were increased. And that belies the facts. The facts are that the vast majority of improvement in fuel efficiency is from technology, as it was from 1975 to 1985. And there were many unused technologies available at that time that hadn't been improved by the auto industry to improve the efficiency of their vehicles.

In addition, if you downsized the largest vehicles -- and there was still some room to do that then, particularly with the advent of SUVs -- then you would have less danger on the highway, because you would have cars that were more homogenous and weighed closer -- were closer to the same size. So when they hit each other, they wouldn't badly injure the occupants of the other car. As you know, with a SUV that hits a smaller car, it does a lot of devastation to that vehicle, because it's such an aggressive vehicle.

So I felt that she was misleading the public, both not talking about the technologies, the major reason, and all that she talked about, really, was that you would have to downsize all cars, until you would have nothing but 2,200-pound mini-cars that people would be injured in. And that was incorrect -- totally incorrect. ...

I thought it was particularly galling that Diane Steed, who had been NHTSA administrator for some six years, and who had the opportunity to substantially improve the safety of vehicles and had refused to do so -- she had refused to keep the airbags standard; she opposed it; she opposed rollover protection standards; she opposed side-impact protection standards; she opposed the shoulder harnesses for the rear-seat passengers -- so I though it was outrageous that she should be now saying that fuel efficiency was going to decrease safety, when that was a lie. It didn't have to. It could, if the manufacturers just decreased the sizes of cars. But they weren't going to do that because they liked to sell big cars, and big cars bring them more money. And they liked to boast about their large cars.

So I knew that they weren't going to do that. They were going to look for every other way possible to make those cars saleable to the public by using better technologies. And if they were concerned about safety, they could improve the safety of the vehicles. ...

CVC ran an ad [against the Bryan bill]. Describe the ad for me, what it showed, what it implied.

The ad was a crash between a huge Crown Victoria and a little 1,800-pound car. It was an off-set crash test, and it looked as though the Crown Victoria had completely devastated the small car. The message was that if we have to make cars more fuel efficient, they're going to be tiny and people are going to get killed on the highway.

Where did the footage come from? ...

The footage came from crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and given to Diane Steed by General Jerry Curry, the new NHTSA administrator, her successor. He took a program for crash testing and redesigned it, changed the way it was going to be conducted, and insisted that this very large car be crash-tested into a little 1,800-pound car ... with no airbag in the small car. But of course by the time the Bryan bill would have started to take effect, you would have had airbags in the small cars. So we objected that this was not a realistic test in terms of the safety that you would expect. Of course, we didn't even think that there were going to be 1,800-pound cars left, and there weren't by the mid-1990s.

He did this because he was opposed to the fuel economy bill introduced by Senator Bryan. And he wanted to publicize the fact that small cars were going to kill people and large cars were going to devastate you on the highway. When you saw the film, it looked like the large car had completely devastated the [small] car; and it did do a lot of damage. But interestingly enough, the occupant, as measured in this test, would have survived the crash.

There was a narration put on this Department of Transportation tape which said, in effect, "Don't be fooled." ... It said, "Don't let misguided legislation cause this to happen." How common was it for DOT test footage to have a narration track or a point of view like that put on and sent out to people?

NHTSA crash tests don't have narration. ... They turned this technical crash test into an advocacy piece. 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, and that is illegal. The Department of Transportation is not supposed to give private lobbying groups material, and particularly not to do a crash test just for them, which costs a lot of money, to do their lobbying activities.

Is there any evidence, other than circumstantial evidence, that they did it for them? Were there any meetings or any evidence that you discovered of a direct collusion between CVC and NHTSA?

I don't know of any direct communication that's recorded. But it's pretty obvious, the time frame between the decision to change the test, the way it was conducted -- the conducting of this test, and then this ad appearing on television -- that it was pretty well coordinated. And I think the Congress was well aware of that.

Just so we understand, is it unusual -- you were administrator of NHTSA -- did you ever create a similar piece that you felt should go out to folks [to] explain the importance of a safety issue or something like this? Had you ever heard of agencies creating a piece of advocacy work, to get a message out of this sort?

Government agencies do produce films and documents that are educational; there's no question about that. And certainly when I was NHTSA administrator, I wanted to explain air bags. No one knew what they were at that time. And so we did a number of documentary-type pieces to what they were. But I don't think that it's usual -- in fact, it's most unusual -- for a government agency to prepare a whole package of information and then hand it over to a lobby group, and tell them that they can use this for advocacy purposes. That's very, very unusual.

And illegal?

And, I think, illegal. ...

The other remarkable thing is the speed with which DOT got this footage into the hands of CVC and others, versus the pace at which they finally, months later, revealed after the ad had run its course, that the results show that the small car's [occupant] would have survived. Can you talk about that?

No one knew when the ads appeared whether or not the occupants inside, as measured -- they were dummies -- would have survived or not. And there was finally a congressional hearing. And I believe, I can't remember, but even at the congressional hearing I don't think that they revealed the numbers. So it look a lot of badgering and harassing the agency, following a Freedom of Information Act request demanding publicly that they release this information, before anyone knew that in fact the occupant in the smaller car would have survived. ...

So largely, their argument in this is that there's a compatibility problem: the little car suffers. [And they draw the] conclusion that you must not increase fuel efficiency standards or you will have more small cars. They never say, "Reduce the weight and size of the big car, so the compatibility is closer."

You're absolutely right. ... The argument of the moment that they thought would be really devastating to the Bryan bill was that it would increase death and injury. And they reveled in that argument; they repeated it over and over and over again. And that's what this ad was intended to convey with the crash test. But the fact is, if you make all cars bigger, there is no end to how much bigger you have to get in order for there not to be a disadvantage to somebody. And so if you make vehicles more or less the same size, then you're going to have the homogeneous relationship between the vehicles. That's the goal that we were pushing for, with fuel efficiency standards and improved safety built into the cars as well.

So it is true that, at that moment, they made that argument. But at the same time, they were making larger and larger incompatible SUVs, now in huge numbers on our highways, that do nothing but damage cars, even worse than the large car they used in that particular crash test. So it's totally cynical. What they were doing was totally cynical, inaccurate; a misrepresentation of what the real results were going to be of that fuel efficiency standard and law.

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