[Do you think there's a price to pay for the blame game that Ford and
Firestone are currently engaged in?]
One of the problems with this fight that's going on is that the attention is
diverted away from the fact that SUVs, as a group, have a stability problem.
The people who are driving these vehicles need to be concerned about rollover
risk with or without tire problems.
So when you're driving these vehicles, or if you choose to buy one of these
vehicles, you are assuming some extra risk. The irony is that people are buying
SUVs because they think they're safer vehicles. The reality is, because of the
rollover risk, they rarely are safer vehicles than larger passenger cars.
Can you remember in your 25 years, 30 years of auto safety, a more confusing
situation that the public has had to absorb?
No, I think in all my years in auto safety -- more than 30 years now -- I've
never seen an issue quite like this one where there's been this public fight.
Now there's, in effect, a three-way debate going on between the government,
Ford and Firestone as to who is or who is not at fault. The ultimate conclusion
is almost certainly going to be both the vehicle and the tire are contributing
to this problem.
So we need to move on and figure out how to fix the problem to make sure it
doesn't occur in the future, but also, really make the public understand that
rollover risks go beyond tire problems; they're inherent in the designs of many
of these vehicles.
Is that kind of clarity ever going to be possible with the money and power
that these companies have to control perceptions?
It's going to be very difficult to get convincing evidence out to the public
that certain vehicles have rollover percentages that are higher than others.
The federal government has been working on vehicle stability issues for the
best part of 30 years. They've tried to develop a standard. Now they have a
sort of simple rollover rating process, but the auto manufacturers have
resisted them all the way. ...
Your phrase is that auto safety is a "full contact sport." Tell me what you
mean by that.
In Washington, D.C., highway safety has always been what I call a full contact
sport. It's not a nice consensus-building operation. There are many fights,
many disputes, especially when it centers around vehicle-related regulations or
defect recalls. The issues become very acrimonious. ... There's a lot of
fighting when it comes to vehicle safety.
And is that conducive, or is that antithetical, ultimately, to vehicle
safety? Or is this inevitable?
I think that the issues that have become very controversial have not been good
for vehicle safety. They have delayed safety progress, because when there's
controversy, ultimately there are delays. There's a fight that goes on and on.
We've had it on many regulatory issues. It's been also the same sort of
situation with other defect issues. They've been prolonged, and as they're
being prolonged, the problems are not being solved. ...
How much of auto safety science ends up being used in propagandistic ways?
There are many ways to spin the issues. The car companies, for example, have
spun the issue of SUV rollovers for many years as, "This is just a driver
problem. If your vehicle rolls over, or has rolled over, you made a mistake.
It's your error. Driver problems are what rollovers are all about." And so
that's one way the issues get spun.
Objectively, it's clear that SUV rollovers are not just a driver problem. Yes,
a driver may have made a mistake. But the mistake shouldn't necessarily lead to
something as serious as a rollover. It does, in many cases, because vehicles
are inherently unstable. So there are many ways that these issues or these data
Let's talk about the history of the rollover phenomenon, and the federal
government's attempts to deal with it. In the mid-1980s, there was an effort to
create some kind of standard. Congressman Wirth petitioned NHTSA to do
something. What happened there? Why wasn't anything done, and what difference
might that have made?
First, the federal government has been trying to address stability or vehicle
stability issues going back into the 1970s. They attempted to develop a vehicle
stability or handling tests procedure that all vehicles would have been
required to meet. This was before there were many SUVs on the road; in fact
there was just a handful of SUVs on the road at the time. ...
Then there was issues related to the Wirth petition, which I believe at the
time should have been implemented. I think 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. Good, it would have eliminated certain kinds of
unstable vehicles or unstable designs. We now know that SUVs don't have to be
as unstable as some of the older designs were. The newer designs are more
So the defeat of the Wirth petition was a critical moment?
I think it's one of many critical moments when it comes to vehicle stability,
but certainly in the early and the mid-1980s, the government could have done
something very effective, because there were not the huge numbers of SUVs on
the road at the time. And the ones that were on the road at the time were
particularly unstable. We had vehicles like the Jeep CJ-5, which had a
horrendous rollover problem.
It was very, very unstable. But as these vehicles have proliferated, it's been
very difficult for the government then to jump in and write a standard that in
effect would have said [that] many of these vehicles today cannot be
The genie was out of the bottle?
The genie was out of the bottle. There are now millions and millions of SUVs on
the road; many of them are not as stable as they should be. The manufacturers
are finally acknowledging this. You see this with the new Ford Explorer. It's
wider and lower to the ground to make it more stable. These kinds of designs
could have been pushed or produced by government regulation in the mid-1980s.
Why was the Wirth petition defeated? Why didn't the government act?
At that time, we were in a period where the government was philosophically
opposed to regulation, so the agencies such as NHTSA were basically marking
time. It wasn't the career staff so much as the politicians of the
time were not going to regulate or we're going to have minimal regulations. So
regulations such as a rollover regulation, which could have been seen as
overreaching, were not likely in that era.
Did you have contact with the NHTSA staff, the career staff assigned to this
during this time? Our understanding is that there was broad consensus even
among those kinds of people that something should be done.
We don't interact with NHTSA staff on an ongoing basis. I don't know to what
extent there was a broad consensus. But I think there has been a recognition
among the career staff at NHTSA for a long time that we have vehicles on the
road that are less stable than they ought to be, and that there should be ways
to limit this. The Wirth petition, or a modification of it, would have been one
way to do it. After all, the government, NHTSA is now using essentially the
same criteria to write vehicles' rollover propensity. They could have in those
days set a minimum standard to eliminate the most unstable vehicles.
Is it too late for them to do that now?
I don't think it's too late for them to do that now, because I think clearly
this Ford-Firestone issue has focused the attention of all manufacturers on
this issue. And I have no doubt that future SUV designs are going to become
more and more stable. It's going to happen with or without the government.
Other companies have got to look at what's happened to Ford saying, "Wow, we
can't afford this. We can't afford these $3 billion charges, these huge
losses." So newer SUV designs, I believe, will become more stable. ...
[Tell me about the history of the design of the SUV.]
When SUVs were first starting to become very popular, the early SUVs were
derived from trucks. The Jeep CJ-5 actually was derived from the military Jeep,
and so there was an evolution of these designs, but basically they were built
like trucks. And so the very first SUVs were pickup trucks that were modified
with a different kind of cab or body put on them. And they were then sold as a
four-passenger vehicle instead of a two-passenger vehicle or two-passenger
truck with a cargo bed.
You now had a four-passenger vehicle. But it basically sat on a truck base, and
so it had some of the inherent problems with trucks. Trucks typically don't
handle as cars. Their suspensions are different, because they are designed to
be work vehicles. 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. ...
The SUV was never, as it was designed originally, intended to be driven 70
miles per hour down highways. That really wasn't in the design itself.
Is that accurate?
I would say that these designs are certainly not the kinds of vehicles you
would associate with high-speed travel. These were not performance vehicles, if
you will. I don't know what speeds they expected people to be driving them, but
clearly they were not vehicles that are designed to handle particularly at high
Can you tell us how major a job it is to redesign a vehicle?
Very few new vehicles coming out of the car companies, whether it's a domestic
manufacturer or an importer, are all new designs. They are almost all an
evolution from an earlier design and the Bronco and the Explorer evolved from
Ford pickup designs. And so it's clear that if you follow the normal pattern of
the way cars and/or trucks are produced, they're always evolving. They're
rarely a brand-new design. So for Ford to have said at the point when they were
coming out with the Explorer, "We want an all-new design," would have been a
several billion-dollar decision and many years development, because you just
don't say, "Oh, let's have an all-new design and produce it tomorrow."
That takes several years of engineering work. Instead of doing that, they have
the pressure to sell vehicles, make a profit. And they could sell these
truck-based SUVs and make very big profits. So there's the pressure. These are
companies, after all, that are in business trying to make a profit.
So it was particularly difficult for Ford, at this moment, to contemplate
major design changes, given the success of this vehicle?
I think that that's the inherent conflict within these car companies. Once you
have a successful vehicle, a vehicle that's making significant profits, even
though you may recognize that there are some deficiencies with that vehicle,
the best you can normally do is tinker around the edges. Because although there
are safety engineers within the car companies that are very sincere and very
committed, they're dealing with other pressures and other conflicts, and they
may be saying, "Gee, we ought to be doing more about the suspension on this
vehicle to make the vehicle more stable." And someone over here is saying, "But
that's an extra cost. It would delay the introduction of the vehicle, and that
would be forgoing profits. We've got to get this vehicle out on the road, and
after all this is not really a vehicle problem when it comes to stability, this
is a driver problem. Let's get these vehicles out there and let's sell them."
I don't mean that to imply that therefore they're knowingly selling dangerous
vehicles. There just are many, many conflicts inside a company as big as the
Ford Motor Company, or any other car company. And the pressure is to get
vehicles on the road that they can sell at a significant profit. The Explorer
was just such a vehicle. ...
What pressure is there on car companies to make safety important in these
There are many factors that force the car companies to pay attention to safety.
One, there are some minimum federal safety standards they have to meet. That's
the law. Two, there are increasingly consumer information programs that rate
car safety. We run them, the government runs them and the public has shown an
interest in these programs and response to them. And third, there's the product
liability situation. If you make vehicles that have some safety problems, you
can finish out with an excessive number of lawsuits for that particular design.
[How have federal auto safety regulations evolved?]
The federal regulations, governing motor vehicles came into effect in the late
1960s. Prior to that, there was very little emphasis on vehicle safety. There
were no regulations, or no significant regulations except for lights and some
other things. And so within the car companies in the late 1960s, there were
very few people involved in vehicle safety, because there was no pressure to
improve design. Certainly not to make them more crashworthy or more stable.
That all changed with the federal regulations. But initially the safety
engineers, initially in the late 1960s, early 1970s, their jobs were to delay
federal regulations. Their jobs were not to make the vehicles safer.
But the dynamic has gradually changed and certainly since the late 1980s and
through most of the 1990s. There's been a lot of consumer interest in vehicle
safety that's been prompted by a number of programs. Now, within the car
companies, within all the car companies, there are many engineers whose job
clearly is to make the vehicles safer.
What is their standing in the company today versus what their standing was
30 years ago?
Thirty years ago, a safety engineer in a car company was someone in a dead-end
career. There was no future for them, because it was just one of those
irritants that you have to pay attention to, but you didn't have to be serious
about. Today it's a major career path for many engineers. There's a high
priority given to making vehicles safer. It doesn't always produce the safest
designs, but there certainly is, within the design process now, a very healthy
debate within the car companies about how much safety should be engineered into
each design. ...
How did NHTSA behave in its early days?
When the federal legislation first passed, the law, in effect, required the
federal agency, which was later NHTSA, to issue a series of initial safety
standards. It did that. They came out very quickly. There was some resistance
to some of those standards. Some manufacturers, for example, even objected in
those days to shoulder belts, which was one of the requirements. But there
wasn't a lot of resistance.
But then in the 1970s, NHTSA proposed some requirements that would have pushed
the state of the art of safety engineering. Most specifically, NHTSA wanted to
push the notion of air bags. That led to a prolonged regulatory battle about
whether or not the government could push the state of the art by pushing
design, or whether it simply had to write standards that, in effect, codified
So NHTSA was very aggressive early on, and was willing to fight battles with
NHTSA was certainly aggressive when it came to rule making in the late 1960s,
early 1970s, running through the 1970s. Most of the battles centered around
requiring new technology or advanced technology, such as air bags, which at the
time NHTSA proposed such a standard had not been perfected. The car
manufacturers said, "You can't force us to develop new technology." That all
became resolved through some court battles and the court said, "Yes, the
government can force the manufacturers to develop new technology."
And then what changed with NHTSA in the 1980s?
A number of things changed with NHTSA in the 1980s. When the Reagan
administration came in, their mantra was, "There's been too much government
regulation. We want relief from government regulation." There was a task force
established to see what regulations should be cancelled or changed -- not just
in the vehicle area. And so immediately there was a slow down of regulatory
And did that, in some ways, set the stage for the auto safety system we have
today? In this sense, it seems to me that we have a very adversarial system.
What we haven't talked about is the other side, which is really the
plaintiff lawyers. Did the waning of the power of NHTSA, in some ways, bring to the fore the role of plaintiff lawyers and
litigation, and that kind of searching for defects, of suing automakers and so
I don't believe so. I believe that the number of product liability lawsuits was
growing and would have continued to grow regardless of what NHTSA did. Whether
or not NHTSA was aggressive, I think we would have seen a growth in product
liability lawsuits. After all, the car companies are deep pockets, and lawyers
like to sue people with deep pockets. Lots of the product liability lawsuits
are frivolous, but some of them are addressing some real safety issues.
But I don't think that the legal side of the equation, if you will, grew
because NHTSA was passive and not doing much in the 1980s. In fact, through the
1980s, even though NHTSA was not doing much, there was a lot of pressure from
the Hill, from certain congressmen and senators for NHTSA, to do more. That
pressure built and built, so that eventually NHTSA did have to issue some new
regulations and issue some new side-impact regulations, for example. It was
essentially forced to by Congress.
What is the role of plaintiff lawyers in the system today? And is it a
productive one, in your judgment?
The role of the plaintiff's attorney or the product liability lawyers is a
mixed one. I think that they have clearly played a role in identifying this
Firestone problem. I think they were the ones that brought this issue to the
public attention, so I would say that's a positive role.
There are also, unfortunately, a lot of frivolous product liability lawsuits,
or lawsuits where the safety allegations are not really justified by the facts.
And I think that's unfortunate, because that give the car companies the sort of
mindset that they don't have to pay attention to these issues; they just have
to deal with them as irritants rather than saying, "Gee, I wonder if this is a
real problem," versus another one that may not be a real problem. ...
So how have auto companies adapted to that noise? What do you see inside
auto companies as their response?
There are a number of responses inside the car companies. Number one, they try
to shield a lot of their safety engineers from litigation, because otherwise
these safety engineers, instead of designing improved systems, are going to be
spending their lives being deposed. And so they tend to have one group of
people that are dealing with the lawsuits and they try to keep that group
separate from the people who are designing and hopefully improving the product
as far as safety is concerned.
So it causes a lot of stresses within a company, because sometimes a senior
safety engineer will get deposed in one lawsuit. Once you've been deposed in
one lawsuit, then you're on the treadmill, and you get deposed and deposed and
deposed, so you're no longer working on ways to improve future products. ...
And what about the culture of openness, or the ability of car companies
internally to have a free forum of ideas, discuss safety, have ideas come in
and reject them, and other ideas come in and accept them -- how does it affect
that kind of culture?
There's no question that the product liability situation for the car companies
is causing people inside the car companies to be very cautious about what they
put down in writing, what they send in e-mails anymore, because one simple
little memo can be taken out of context, used out of context and used for years
So you finish off with some defensive engineering, if you will. Certainly, I
think, it inhibits some of the really tough discussions that ought to be taking
place, particularly when designs are in the gestation period. ...
Does this inhibit a company taking responsibly for a problem that it
identifies it publicly it's opening itself up to this threat of
There's no question; when a car company acknowledges that it has a car
safety-related defect, they are, in effect, inviting some lawsuits, because
plaintiffs' attorneys will be looking for people who have been injured in
events related to that defect. And then they assume, I think correctly, that
they've got a clear-cut case of liability.
Now that situation is not going to contribute to improving the product, because
the manufacturers already acknowledged the problem, and presumably has
acknowledged the problem and a fix. So, yes, when you acknowledge a
safety-related defect, as a manufacturer, you are, I think, acknowledging that
you're going to have some additional liability.
And therefore you're encouraged to deny problems?
There's no question that, [given] the fact that if you acknowledge as a
manufacturer that you have a safety-related defect -- that that can potentially
increase your liability -- is a reason to resist acknowledging such a defect.
And one way some manufacturers do it -- and have done it in the past -- is to
say, "We're going to have a recall, but it's not a safety-related recall. We're
going to fix this problem, but it's not really a safety problem," even though
it clearly is a safety problem. Somehow they think that may reduce their
liability, I presume.
And I think you see that in Ford. Ford has been absolutely unwilling to even
broach the subject of a problem in its SUV, a tippiness problem or anything
When it comes to stability problems, whether it's the Explorer or any other
SUV, no manufacturer is going to say that, "My basic design is inherently
flawed." They could say, "There's a problem with the left rear wheel," or,
"There's a problem with the brakes," because those problems can be fixed. But
if you have a design that is inherently unstable, no manufacturer is going to
say, "Gee, this design is a safety problem."
What's the fix? Everyone who's got a Ford Explorer or a Ford Bronco can choose
another Ford product that doesn't have this design. So when it comes to very
basic and fundamental safety problems, like vehicle stability, there's never
going to be a recall; there's never going to be acknowledgement that this is a
defect, because there is no remedy. ...
What happens to auto safety when the system becomes too antagonistic, as I
think we agree it has become?
When the system becomes totally adversarial, there is no possibility of a
dialogue between the various forces so it all gets resolved in the courts or
elsewhere on the basis of who's won the latest battle -- not necessarily who
has the best information or for the best solution for safety. It's just who can
win that particular fight. ...
Is the adversarial system an argument for a stronger NHTSA, a stronger
presence of "an honest broker" as one of the congressmen said yesterday, a
factual body that can come in and resolve this? Are you satisfied with the role
that NHTSA is playing? Does it need to be more aggressive? What do you think?
There's no question that NHTSA needs to be strengthened. There has been a
cutback in government across the board, and NHTSA's been a victim of that. I
believe that it is good for vehicle safety, it is good for the car companies to
have a very strong, very funded NHTSA. I think that is essential, and we
haven't had that in recent years. The funding has been declining. We have a
major problem on our hands.
We have 40,000 deaths a year in motor vehicle crashes, and we have an
underfunded agency. There are institutes in Washington doing research on dental
problems that have bigger budgets than the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration. That's a scandal. This is a major health problem. It deserves
the same kinds of resources we put into other health problems.
Has that been addressed now by the TREAD Act? Is that enough money, enough
I don't think that we have addressed this problem yet, that the agency doesn't
have enough resources. We don't have enough money to fund basic research in
biomechanics and some other areas of vehicle safety. And until we have more
resources, we won't be training the good engineers and the good scientists in
the universities, because universities or researchers will go where there's
funding, and there has been limited funding for good research in this arena.
Is the market the real guarantor of auto safety?
... I believe, today, that the marketplace is the most powerful force working
in vehicle safety. The information that comes out, whether it's reliable or
not, if a product gets branded as being unsafe, it's going to hurt in the
marketplace. The car companies know that. And if a product is branded as being
safe, it will do better in the marketplace. The car companies know that. So the
marketplace is a very powerful force if it has information. ...
But doesn't this put a premium on accurate information? If the marketplace
is going to be the arbiter, don't they need accurate information?
There is absolutely no question that, for the marketplace to be as effective as
we think it can be, the information needs to be accurate; it needs to be
reliable; it needs to be based on science. And it should not be based on
whimsy, or one memo that was produced in a lawsuit.
And is that, in some ways, the ultimate tragedy of this scandal -- the
extent to which the public has been completely confused by what's been
The public probably has been confused by this. 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. 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. ...
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