rollover: the hidden history of the suv
photo of an suv crash test and a family looking at a truck home
unsafe on any tire?
before you buy...
interviews
nixon & detroit
discussion
join the discussion: Do you believe SUVs should face tougher safety and environmental regulations, even if it means lower profits for auto companies and fewer choices for consumers?


Dear FRONTLINE,

I would like to complement you on your outstanding program and web site on the hidden history of the SUV. However, I have a question about a statistic your report on the web under "before you buy." The statistic is that "A Ford Explorer is 16 times as likely as the typical family car to kill occupants of another vehicle in a crash." This "16 times" strikes me as too high. If "1 out of 4 new vehicles sold in the U.S. is an SUV," then either the Ford Explorer would have to be much more dangerous than other SUVs, or the great majority of all fatalities would have to be caused by SUVs. I suspect the "16 times" statistic is in error, and I would be very interested in the source of this statistic.

Rich West
harrisonburg, va

FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Thank you for your question. The statistic you refer to is cited by New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher in his interview with FRONTLINE. Bradsher gets the statistic from a federal study released in February 2001 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The study was performed for the agency by Hans Joksch of the University of Michigan. (Bradsher calls him "one of the deans of traffic safety analysis since the 1960s.") He has done much of the agency's work on vehicle interactions in crashes.

The full report is dated April 2000, but NHTSA did not release it until February 2001. The report can be found here (in PDF format).


Dear FRONTLINE,

Your coverage of this subject was thoughtful except for one important thing: what about the ultimate responsibility of the consumer? The information you discussed is and has been out there for at least the past 10 years. Most, if not all, libraries and newsstands carry Consumer Reports.

When you are looking to spend $20,000, $30,000 at once, it is your responsibility to do "your homework!" No one else should do that as you are the one who will be putting your life on the line with this purchase.

Defective products usually will not be purchased, and thereby force the manufacturer to either change that product or go out of business. But the consumer who is persuaded by an ad or salesman, and buys a SUV on a whim, is acting irresponsibly. As consumers, it is our responsibility to research the product. If we fail in this, we must assume most, if not all, responsibility.

Douglas Adolphsen
columbia, maryland


Dear FRONTLINE,

I am always amazed that when you tell the truth, you are acused of being liberal zealots.

I have driven Fords for years including the Bronco II, and Explorer with Wilderness ATs. My wife's family owns several dealerships. My father worked for Ford, and both my gradfathers had Ford trucks and tractors for years. I am from a "Ford Family".

My Bronco II was a dangerous little thing, but I knew it and was able to control it with the grace of God. However, on wet roads and in J turns I got it up on two wheels several times. Like most Bronco II drivers I was a young male, and fair driver who had off road experience and understood the dynanmics of the vechicle. (Its like a Jeep CJ-7.)

I was a family man when I had my Explorer and it was often driven by my wife, a Soccer mom, as was intended by Ford. It did not look like a Jeep and is and was marketed as an stylish and safe alternative to a station wagon. (When it the last time you saw one of those?) I liked it because I could use it for outdoor related activies, and it had a large cargo area, my wife liked it because it could carry a lot of children and toys, strollers, etc. and was not a station wagon. Ford liked it because they made about $15,000.00 a truck on it because it so cheap to build and allowed them to bury the problemamtic Bronco II.

It's inherent rollover tendencies are not readily apparent to the average customer. (My wife and I argued often on whetrher it was a truck or a car. I could not convince her that it was a truck, she finally agreed it was an SUV, which was different than a truck. Another marketing ploy I am sure.)

I mistakenly believed that the extra length and weight of the Explorer would reduce or eliminate the rollover problems associated with the Bronco II. I was wrong. Almost dead wrong.

On a highway in the South on a hot May day, the tread separated on my properly inflated and rotated rear drivers side tire, sending me, my wife, and infant son into a spin at 60 mph, and into a tree line. We were all very lucky to escape with our lives, and extremely fortunate to have suffered only minor injuries.

I was surprised when the State trooper, my doctor, the tow truck operator, the repair shop, and my insurance agent all knew what apparently NHSTA and congress did not, that this was happening all over the South.

The more that I have dug into this, the angrier I have become. Ford didn't learn anything from the Pinto fiasco. They should not only be billion dollar punitive judgments against them, there should be criminal charges. (please see Flordia AG's investigation.)

You piece was an excellant "tip of the iceburg" look at this situation, not a hatchet job. The whole truth is uglier than anyone can ever amagine. It is in a nutshell sales over safety, time and time again. This theme repeats inself in asbestos, drug cases, car manufactering, even in the Enron case.

The marketers believe they can sell anything if it is properly marketed. If it is dangerous, we say it is for rugged risk takers, et al. The problem is that they are not marketing these SUV's that way, and a large percentage of the owners/operators are "soccer moms." I wish that you would have shown some of the ads in Parents Magazine, Redbook, etc., aimed at women.

Steve M
ocean springs, ms


Dear FRONTLINE,

You were slanted in this one. You advocated regulation and control from a central authority, (federal govt). We will have a choice and be held accountable for our own decisions.

The information (general) is and has been out there for years on SUV risks. I have owned SUV's of one kind or another since 1982 and still do. It is clearly stated on my visor that you have increased risk in driving a SUV.

Why have you suddenly turned to the left with this issue. You have mostly been fair but not this time you clearly advocated control from the FED. Also did you get any funding from GM it almost seemed so, as you used the ford bronco for bashing 2 to 1. Even when the Chevy Blazer turned over in the interview you did not say it was a chevy blazer only that is was not a Ford or did it not have Firestone tires. Really revealing and scary. Also your statistics were flawed in many instances.

dallas jones
houston, tx


Dear FRONTLINE,

I am not as concerned with the auto industry's lack of honesty on this issue as I am upset with our representatives and their appointees.

The auto industry is going to try and profit at the public's expense, however it is the job of our elected officials to protect the public. These elected officials and their appointees have failed and should be held accountable. That said, there is enough blame to pass around to all the various protective systems involved in this issue.

I think as a consumer you ultimately just have to use your common sense as best as possible and operate on the premise that you have to be responsible for your choices.

santa barbara, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

It is sad that PBS cannot present a truly valid question for debate without slanting it so badly.

The environmental costs of the American preference for overpowered gas-guzzling vehicles are no doubt horrendous. But last I heard, this was indeed still a free country, and there is nothing illegal or even immoral about either the acquisition of a larger vehicle than "necessary" nor with a company "gouging" the consumer for a product that is currently overly popular. (By a similar thought process, should the price of pop stars' concert tickets be held to the same profit margins as the high school dance band? Or should Oprah Winfrey only be allowed to charge as much for her show as a local late-night talk show?)

Nor can we outlaw American stupidity, such as untrained teens thinking they can handle a four-wheel-drive truck like they can a bicycle or go-kart.

There are still quite valid reasons for owning a large vehicle--ask the dog owner with three Great Danes and a large property to landscape, or someone who must go off-road in the West or in winter weather.

Unfortunately, Americans have been suckered into buying far larger vehicles than they actually need--simply because they can. Perhaps the best strategy would be for safety activists to continue to remind the American public of the different characteristics of SUVs and for environmental activists to continually remind the public of the horrendous environmental waste and huge markups of the trendy cars.

I own the most fuel-efficient car I can afford. But I still want the liberty of being able to buy, rent or borrow a larger vehicle or off-road vehicle should I need one.

Alexander Mitchell
baltimore, md


Dear FRONTLINE,

For reporting on developing news, this FRONTLINE was a disaster.

The technology for preventing rollovers from slalom maneuvers is well established and commercially available since several years. It is called ESP (electronic stability program) and it automatically engages the brakes on diagonal wheels when a rollover is imminent.

NHTSA should make this mandatory, but NHTSA is an agency that always has favored passive safety to active safety. Also, only imported luxury vehicles offer ESP, and the domestics don't offer it. Its cost over ABS brakes is very affordable.

Klaus Drexl
west new york, nj


Dear FRONTLINE,

I have been following this story for years and I have always been amazed at the almost complete lack of coverage.

The whole story revolves around the fact that the consumer has been a sucker on SUV's. Madison Avenue has convinced them that the SUV is safe, sexy and to top it all off, it also lets your neighbors know that you can afford one. Well, the media also drive cars and also have bought into the safety myth and also love the status that those vehicles bring. They certainly are going to be loathe to report on a story that might reveal how stupid and status-conscious they too have been. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. I could care less if people bought $40,000 security alarms or or other useless items but when those purchases threaten others on the road as well as themselves, I become outraged.

I have had two close friends involved in low speed rollovers in SUV's. One was killed and the other is paralyzed for life. All for the love of status and an apparent sense of security.

George robson
petoskey, michigan


Dear FRONTLINE,

I don't understand how people can watch this show and still contend that bad drivers are the problem with SUV's.

If a vehicle can't perform a simple avoidance maneuver at less than 25 miles per hour without tipping over, even with professional drivers at the wheel, how can it possibly be the driver's fault?

Furthermore, the problem of fuel consumption is greater than people think. The massive drop in American petroleum consumption between 1978 and 1983 put us in the "driver's seat" when it came to petroleum price. Now we have ceded that position for very dubious reasons. NHTSA political hacks can veto their own scientists safety concerns to their heart's content, but they can't repeal the law of supply and demand. SUV's consume too much. Period. And it has nothing to do with their size. It's about automakers' profits.

The technology is out there, they just have to put it under the hood. There is no reason that SUV's must get 12 and 13 miles per gallon. I drive a big car. (I prefer a smaller car, but it got just too intimidating out there with more and more vehicles towering over me.) In spite of the fact that my car is as big and heavy as many SUV's, I get nearly 30 miles per gallon. It's not only about size. If the Japanese makers can get 72 MPG in a small car, there is no reason on earth (except profit margins) that an SUV can't get 25 or 30. This is not 1973. The technology has matured. Automakers should be compelled to use it. On person writes about businesses and people who "need bigger vehicles," I just don't see it on the road. At leat 85% of the SUV's I see are occupied by a lone driver, and most of the rest of them have one passenger.

As to the "safety" of SUV's (other than rollovers), it is only safety at the expense of other drivers and their passengers, since they can go "off road" right over the hoods and fenders -- and into the passenger compartments -- of almost anything else. My big car's bumper is at about knee level. My neighbor's SUV's bumper is at my waist. At the very least, they should be built to a standard that puts their bumpers down where everybody else's are.

David Paquette
woonsocket, ri


Dear FRONTLINE,

I have owned a Nisson Pathfinder for 6 years. It, as well as ANY other SUV is COMPLETELY SAFE as long as it is driven properly.

The problem is the driver, not the vehical, just as it is in most accidents. You can not expect a truck-type vehical with a high center of gravity to handle the same as a Lotus that sits almost on the ground.

Different types of vehicals demand different driving skills. Why do you think a person needs a special liscense to drive a large bus or a tractor-trailer? BECAUSE THEY DON'T HANDLE THE SAME AS A NORMAL PASSENGER CAR! Educate the driver, don't condem the SUV for the driver's mistakes!

David Peterson
jamestown, ny


Dear FRONTLINE,

Excellent show on SUVs. You must have done a lot of editing to squeeze all the material you had into one hour. I noticed there was no piece about Isuzu suing Consumer Reports about the poor rating that CR gave the Isuzu Trooper. You also excluded that light trucks pollute more because emission standards are lower for these vehicles.

Compounding factors for these unsafe vehicles include the elimination of the 55-mph speed limit. Our highways end up with large, unsafe vehicles, going faster, and consuming even more gas (did you know that EPA highway ratings are based on 45 MPH?). Another long running problem is "bumper mismatch." One of the standards never adopted for auto safety was a uniform bumper height. Just park a car in front of or behind a SUV and look where the bumpers match up, or where they don't match up.

While traveling in other countries I noticed the marked absence of SUVs. First because gas prices are much higher and other folks are more practical than Americans. We consume 25% of the world's resources with its equal match of the world's pollution while only having 5% of the population. With just these figures alone there isn't enough resources for just the USA and China if everyone wants a similar standard of living. Of course there is the rest of the planet to consider but then our motto is simple: We're rich, we can afford to waste the world's resources.

Buff Harding, Jr.
san francisco, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

If you are buying a sport vehicle expect a sport vehicle. Maybe you need a show on corvettes because they are built to go to fast. or Maybe a show on steak knifes because they are sharp. or Maybe a show on lightsocket because your finger can fit inside one and you can get shocked. And don't forget that coffee at McDonalds is hot.

Your story was the typical American cry story. I am disapointed.

Eric Tarkon
chugiak, ak


Dear FRONTLINE,

Kudos on another excellent program. Having owned a Montero (the old short 2 door model) since 1985 you are right to point out that these were not designed as easily driven highway and city vehicles. These should be driven as if they are postal delivery trucks. They simply are not the most efficient road vehicles.

Unfortunately they have become very fashionable over the last several years. And it is very important to point out that most Americans are slaves to fashion and what's in at any given point in history. Remember those heavily chromed road cruisers from the mid 1950's to the late 1960's? Yes we laugh now and say what were we thinking with all that chrome and large tail fins. Unfortunately safety and fuel economy has always taken back seat to styling and fashion. So I guess our consumer driven material based economy is a large part of the blame. It's going to take a drastic change in our national attitude to over come this reality.

Phillip Franklin
solana beach, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

Excellent program Frontlime. well done!

Detroit has been killing people for decades. The Ford Pinto was a travesty and so is the SUV rollover problem.

If the Ferderal Government won't regulate corporations appropriately, who is going to protect the consumer? The only resort we have left is litigation. This is why Bush's plans for Tort reform must be stopped.

Pajoh Lublewski
san mateo, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

You made it sound like driving an SUV is courting instant death by rollover, whereas an SUV is actually safer per mile to drive because it tends to prevail over lesser vehicles. Your best chance to arrive safely at Point B is in a heavyweight.

That may not be "politically correct" to say, specially to the poor bastard in the lesser vehicle, but it is nonetheless true and very relevant, and I feel it should have been mentioned. Its blatant omission reveals Frontline to be political propaganda rather than a search for truth. No wonder no one watches PBS.

Dave Held
redondo beach, california

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