rollover: the hidden history of the suv
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interview: brian o'neill
Brian O'Neill is president of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. The institute researches and proposes countermeasures to all three factors that contribute to motor vehicle accidents -- human, vehicular, and environmental -- as well as interventions that may reduce losses. He calls auto safety a "full contact sport" because of the typical disputes that arise around defect recalls or auto regulations, and he tells FRONTLINE that he hopes the lasting message of the Ford-Firestone crisis will be that "SUVs have a stability problem." This interview was conducted in June 2001.

... What's perplexed me about [the Ford-Firestone case] is that here we have identified a cause of a rollover; but lots of things lead to rollovers. In fact, rollovers happen much, much more frequently without a tire separation than they do with a tire separation. Are we talking about the wrong thing here, in some ways?

We haven't identified the cause of the rollover; we've identified a precipitating factor, one precipitating factor: tire tread separation. The ultimate cause of the rollover is the instability of the vehicle itself. ... The public has been indifferent to this problem, but the problem has been around for a very long time. We've had a lot of rollover deaths -- many, many more rollover deaths -- in SUVs than the relatively small number associated with these tire failures.

And by that logic, would it be as misguided to go after the Ford Explorer by itself as it is to go after the Firestone tire by itself as the problem?

There are a number of possibilities here. We know that most SUVs, or most of the classic SUVs, have a stability problem. We know that there's a tread separation problem with certain Firestone tires. We know that that combination is leading to rollovers of Ford Explorers. It may be that the Ford Explorer has some unique design characteristics that either increases the likelihood of a tread separation, or increases the likelihood of a rollover when a tread separation occurs.

So we are dealing, I think, with multiple issues here: The overall instability of SUVs, some problems with these tires, and some possibly unique problems with the combination of these tires and the Ford Explorer. ...

[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.

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.

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 get spun.

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 stable.

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 produced.

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 speeds. ...

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 considerations?

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 existing technology.

So NHTSA was very aggressive early on, and was willing to fight battles with the automakers?

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 activity.

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 forth?

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 and 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 lawsuits?

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 like that.

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 additional resources?

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 happening?

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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