NHTSA and the hidden history of the SUV
The Federal Government Gets Involved in Auto Safety
In November 1965, a young consumer activist named Ralph Nader published Unsafe
at Any Speed, a book that criticized the rollover tendencies of General
Motors' Corvair sportscar. The book's publication resulted in a scandal when it
was revealed that GM hired private detectives in an attempt to discredit Nader.
James Roche, the president of GM, was summoned before a Congressional
subcommittee to explain the company's actions and to apologize to Nader.
The scandal brought auto safety into the spotlight and contributed to the
passage of two new auto safety laws, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle
Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966, and the creation of the
National Highway Safety Bureau. Under the Highway Safety Act of 1970, the
bureau was renamed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
By law, NHTSA's responsibilities include: reducing deaths, injuries, and
economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes by setting and enforcing
safety standards; investigating safety defects in motor vehicles; setting and
enforcing fuel economy standards; and conducting research on driver behavior
and traffic safety.
CAFE and the Impact of New Fuel Economy Standards
Responding to the high gasoline prices and fuel shortages of the early 1970s,
Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The act required automakers
to meet strict fuel efficiency standards known as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel
Economy). Failure to meet the CAFE standard would result in fines based on the
total number of vehicles produced by an automaker in a given model year.
The bipartisan legislation devised separate standards for automobiles and light
trucks. Because they were used primarily on farms and ranches, light trucks
were subject to a less stringent standard. The automakers took advantage of
this loophole when developing the first SUVs (classified as light trucks) in
the early 1980s.
Reagan Enters Office on a Mission to Deregulate
During the late 1970s, under Carter appointee Joan Claybrook (a
protégé of Ralph Nader), NHTSA pushed through a rash of new
regulations and undertook aggressive investigations, including a famous
investigation of the Ford Pinto.
In 1981 the Reagan administration came to power with the promise of broad
deregulation to help the ailing auto industry. With the help of powerful
pro-industry Democrats in Congress -- led by House Commerce Committee chairman
John Dingell of Dearborne, Mich. -- the administration blocked efforts to
regulate the auto industry. NHTSA's budget was slashed and its staff was told
that the agency's efforts would be directed toward repealing existing
regulations rather than proposing new ones.
Rollovers Make National News Headlines
The issue of rollover first made national news in 1980 when CBS's 60
Minutes aired a report on the Jeep CJ, the model for many early SUVs. The
report showed footage of an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety test in which
the vehicle rolled over while executing a "J" turn (a sweeping right turn
followed by a straight-on path) and during sudden evasive maneuvers, such as a
quick turn to avoid an object in its path. Despite the rollover risk, Americans
flocked to the Jeep. Other automakers, their sales slumping, took notice.
Ford Introduces the Bronco II
Using the Jeep CJ as a model, Ford introduced its first SUV, the
Bronco II, which rolled out in March 1983. It was an immediate hit. Throughout
the 1980s, the company sold over 700,000 Bronco IIs -- double its initial
projections. Almost immediately, however, the Bronco II began to have rollover
As deaths and serious injuries mounted, so did lawsuits. Plaintiff attorneys
discovered that Ford knew that its Bronco II prototypes were tipping onto two wheels
at speeds as low as 20 miles per hour, and that Ford had even considered
shelving the Bronco II project during development. To make the Bronco II
less likely to roll over, Ford engineers proposed widening the vehicle by two
inches. But Ford's management -- conscious of competition with GM's Chevrolet
Blazer -- decided not to do so, because it would have delayed "Job 1" (the
vehicle's first date of production).
A Congressman Petitions, and NHTSA Declines to Regulate SUVs
In 1986, Congressman Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) petitioned NHTSA to force changes in
the basic design of SUVs. He was spurred to act after the release of a
controversial report -- funded in part by trial lawyers -- which used a
mathematical formula called the "static stability factor" (calculated by dividing
the width of a vehicle's track by two times the height of its center of
gravity) to show a link between a vehicle's dimensions and its stability.
NHTSA engineer Anna Harwin was assigned to study the matter and make a
recommendation. Based on her analysis of the rollover crash data of early SUVs,
her final paper showed "a pronounced and consistent pattern" of a relationship
between a vehicle's height and width and its propensity to roll over.
Congressman Wirth's petition was now backed by NHTSA research, and all five
NHTSA departments recommended that the agency consider regulation.
The ultimate decision, however, was up to NHTSA administrator Diane Steed, the
Reagan political appointee who headed the agency, and she denied the Wirth
petition. In a 1993 legal deposition, Steed explained that she had rejected the
petition because she believed the static stability factor was an inadequate
measure to use as a basis for regulation. Her decision preserved the basic
design of the SUV, and helped set NHTSA's future course on rollovers.
NHTSA Looks at the Bronco II, then Looks the Other Way
By 1989, the Bronco II had become the primary target of safety advocates and
trial lawyers, who approached NHTSA for a recall of the vehicle. According to
federal crash statistics, the Bronco II was one of the three most deadly SUVs
then on the road, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had rated it
the most deadly.
In October 1990, NHTSA rejected the petition to launch a formal investigation
of the Bronco II to determine whether or not it should be recalled. According
to the agency, in order to find a safety-related defect, the data must show
that the vehicle's safety-related performance distinguished itself from the
rest of its class (in this case, SUVs). In other words, NHTSA found that the
Bronco II may have been dangerous, but it wasn't dangerous enough when compared
to other SUVs. The decision remains controversial.
Ford Goes Forward with Explorer Despite Stability
Eight months before the first Ford Explorer was scheduled to roll off the
assembly line, the Bronco II failed handling tests conducted by Consumer
Reports, and the magazine warned its readers against purchasing the vehicle
due to its stability problems.
Concerned that the new Explorer would face similar scrutiny, Ford's engineers
put the Explorer prototype through the same test at a company testing site in
Arizona. They found that the Explorer prototype repeatedly tipped up off the
ground during the handling test, showing that it had the same stability
problems as the Bronco II.
During a deposition in a later rollover lawsuit, Roger Simpson, the project
manager for the Explorer, testified that widening the prototype by two inches
likely would have made the vehicle more stable. However, Ford management
decided against making that change. In the same deposition, Simpson said that
one of the reasons Ford decided against widening the vehicle was because the
company had already invested more than $500 million in the Explorer prototype,
and delaying Job 1 would have been too costly.
The Explorer was introduced in March 1990. It quickly became the best-selling
SUV in the world, and helped ignite an explosion in SUV sales.
Congress Kills Higher CAFE Standards ... and SUVs Roll On
After Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait, U.S. politicians grew concerned
about U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Senator Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) proposed a
bill that would raise CAFE gas mileage requirements 40 percent by the year
2001. SUVs were included under the Bryan bill, which would have made the
gas-guzzling vehicles an expensive liability for automakers.
President George Bush's NHTSA administrator, Gen. Jerry Curry,
would have been responsible for enforcing the bill's fuel efficiency standards.
He believed that the only way to meet the new requirements would be to make cars
smaller, which would make them less safe. He ordered NHTSA engineers to conduct
a series of crash tests between one of the largest cars on the market and two
of the smallest, and released the video with narration that said, "Any
government fuel conservation legislation that forces a significant reduction in
car size can be expected to increase the number of deaths and cause
injuries." The narration specifically attacked the Bryan bill: "These two accidents graphically illustrate that the laws of physics cannot be set aside by well-intentioned but ill-advised legislation. What happens when cars are made smaller? Draw your own conclusions."
A lobbying group called the Coalition for Vehicle Choice -- funded by the auto
industry and headed by former NHTSA administrator Diane Steed -- obtained a
copy of the video and used it in a national ad campaign attacking the Bryan
bill. Using the safety argument, Senator Donald Riegel (D-Mich.) led a successful filibuster that killed the Bryan bill in October 1990.
ISTEA: A Fateful Legislative Showdown on Auto Safety
Frustrated by the anti-regulatory agenda in Washington during the 1980s,
auto-safety advocates, working with their allies in the Senate, raided a giant
1991 transportation bill called the Intermodal Surface Transportation
Efficiency Act, known as ISTEA. The goal was to
attach riders to the bill mandating a number of tougher auto-safety
regulations, including one that governed rollovers.
In conference, the final ISTEA legislation was fiercely contested. After two
weeks of negotiations between the House and Senate, the safety advocates
prevailed on a mandate for passenger-side airbags, but on other safety
requirements the language was softened. On rollover regulations, a critical compromise
was made. Rather than require anti-rollover regulation, as the Senate
bill would have done, the final bill required NHTSA only to formally
consider an anti-rollover rule. That seemingly minor change spelled the
fate for rollover regulation for the next decade. The bill was signed by
President George H.W. Bush in December 1991.
The "Safety Sticker" Initiative
In June 1994, as a response to the ISTEA legislation, Bill Clinton's secretary of transportation, Federico Pena, held a
press conference to announce the department's decision on rollover regulation. NHTSA
would not issue a rollover standard. "We rejected what seemed to be an
appealing solution -- a strict stability standard -- but what actually proved
to be an enormously expensive and largely ineffective answer to a very
complicated problem," the secretary said.
In place of a rollover standard, Pena touted a new tactic: consumer
information. Pena's plan was to place a "safety sticker" with rollover ratings
on all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States. "The Safety Sticker
... will, for the first time, give consumers better and more complete
information about the safety of cars and light trucks at the time and place
where consumers tell us that such information is most useful: on the car, in
the dealership, at the point of purchase," Pena said.
The sticker proposal was immediately attacked from both sides. Safety advocates
who had pushed for a stability rule felt that consumer information was an
inferior alternative. On the other hand, the industry, which had long opposed
any rollover standard, now objected to a rollover rating, arguing that no test
existed that could reliably rate a vehicle's tendency to roll.
Following Pena's announcement, Congressman Bob Carr (D-Mich.), a strong defender of the auto industry, derailed the consumer information
effort. He pushed through a bill that froze all spending on the sticker
initiative for two years, requiring instead a National Academy of Sciences
study of "motor vehicle safety consumer information needs and the most
cost-effective methods of communicating this information."
In the face of these delays and strong opposition by the auto industry, NHTSA
finally dropped the sticker initiative in 1999.
Ford-Firestone Scandal Explodes
In February 2000, Houston television station KHOU aired a report that
spotlighted the deadly tread separation problems of Firestone radial Wilderness ATX tires
on Ford Explorers. In May 2000, after receiving 90 complaints -- including
reports of 33 crashes resulting in 27 injuries and 4 deaths -- NHTSA launched
a formal investigation.
On Aug. 9, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone announced that it was recalling 6.5
million tires. In May 2001, Ford announced that it was recalling all 13 million
Firestone Wilderness ATX tires that remained on its vehicles, saying it was concerned about
the tires' safety. At congressional hearings in June, Firestone CEO John Lampe
questioned whether the Explorer's design had contributed to the rollover
NHTSA concluded in October 2001 that some Firestone tires were prone to
tread separation, and ordered Firestone to recall an additional
3.5 million tires. Bridgestone ultimately lost $1.6 billion in the year following the
scandal and Ford was forced to budget $3 billion for its own tire recall. While
the Ford Explorer lost market share as a result of the scandal, it came out
relatively unscathed and remains the best-selling SUV in the world.
New Car Assessment Program and Rollover Ratings
In June 2000, NHTSA proposed to rate vehicles on
rollover, as part of its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). Rather than post
the information in showrooms, however, as the agency had originally called for in 1994,
NHTSA would place the new rankings on its website. To rank vehicles, NHTSA
turned back to the static stability factor, the much maligned formula Tim Wirth had
proposed in 1986.
Soon after NHTSA's new proposal was announced, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.),
pushed through a bill requiring a National Academy of Sciences study on the
value of static stability factor before any ratings could be published. Senator Shelby's move was overtaken by the sheer force of events. As the
Ford-Firestone rollover scandal intensified during the summer, legislators,
feeling the pressure, allowed the new ratings to be released while the NAS
study was being conducted.
In January 2001, nearly seven years after Pena's announcement of the "safety
sticker" initiative, the first-ever rollover ratings were posted on NHTSA's website. (See Rollover Resistance Ratings Information for an explanation of NHTSA's ratings system. To find the ratings for a particular vehicle, see Buying a Safer Car.
As a class, SUVs have the poorest rollover stability ratings.
TREAD Act Requires New Rollover Test
Responding to the Ford-Firestone debacle, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) sponsored
the Transportation Reporting Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act
(known as the TREAD Act) in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill sought
to improve consumer protection and communication between auto and tire
manufacturers and the federal government. In particular, it required auto and
tire manufacturers to report any defects on American autos and tires sold in
foreign countries. It also proposed increasing the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration's authority to collect information about possibly
defective products and expanding its budget for investigations. The bill was
signed by President Clinton in November 2000.
Another element of the TREAD Act is the requirement that by the end of 2002,
NHTSA must produce a dynamic stability test for rollovers. In a dynamic
stability test, the vehicle is put through a mobile course to more accurately
determine its propensity to roll over.
Redesigned Explorer Hits Showrooms
In February, Ford rolled out its fully redesigned 2002 Explorer. The new model
was widened by two inches and included independent rear suspension. Ford CEO
Jacques Nasser has said that none of the changes were made for safety reasons.
RECENT AND PENDING DECISIONS ON THE FORD EXPLORER
Jury Finds Explorer's Design Defective
A California jury ruled that an auto repair shop was liable for poor service on
a 1994 Ford Explorer that rolled over in a 1997 crash, in which a couple was
severely injured. Although the jurors did not find Ford liable for the
accident, they agreed that there was a design defect in the vehicle, marking
the first time a jury had found a defect in the Explorer's design.
Because it was found not responsible for the accident, Ford saw the decision as
a victory. "This is a win, plain and simple," said Ford spokesman Ken Zino. "A
general finding of defect is meaningless in these cases." Tab Turner,
an attorney who has filed dozens of lawsuits against Ford, agreed that it
is difficult to interpret the jury's decision. He told the Detroit Free
Press, "I think it would be unfair to say that the jury found the Explorer
was defective or unsafe in this case. You can't know what was in the jurors'
minds when they checked that box."
NHTSA Decides Not to Investigate Ford Explorer
In a decision that was seen as a victory for Ford, NHTSA denied
Bridgestone/Firestone's request to investigate safety defects in the Ford
Explorer. The agency based its decision on extensive analysis of its own data
and data provided by Ford and Firestone. NHTSA's reasoning behind this decision
is the same as the reasoning behind its 1989 decision not to recall the Bronco
II. According to NHTSA's administrator, George W. Bush appointee Dr. Jeffrey
Runge, "The data does not support Firestone's contention that Explorers stand
out from other SUVs with respect to its handling characteristics following a
In addition to the numerous personal-injury lawsuits that Ford and Firestone
face, there are two major pending developments involving the Ford
- Led by Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, state attorneys general are
expected to decide by mid year whether to sue Ford on charges that the company
concealed known defects in the Explorer and hid overseas recalls from
consumers. In November 2001, Bridgestone/Firestone agreed to a $51.5 million
settlement with the states in which they agreed to cooperate in the ongoing
investigation of Ford.
- Ford and Firestone both may face a possible class-action lawsuit that has
been filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. However, in February 2002,
the companies won the right to appeal the federal court decision to grant class
status to the suit. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear oral
arguments in the companies' case in April.
NHTSA Chief Criticizes SUV Safety
In a Jan. 14 speech at an auto industry conference, NHTSA Administrator Dr.
Jeffrey Runge said that as the popularity of SUVs and light trucks continues to
grow, SUV safety issues -- in particular vehicle compatibility and rollover
prevention and protection -- will remain among the agency's top priorities. He
noted that rollover accidents represent 60 percent of SUV fatalities and 46
percent of serious injuries in SUVs. Runge, who was an emergency room physician
for 20 years before accepting his current position, also warned automakers that
NHTSA would consider mandating tougher safety standards if the industry didn't
voluntarily start implementing new safety technology, including side airbags.