rollover: the hidden history of the suv
photo of a rolled-over suv and people looking at a lexus suv home
unsafe on any tire?
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Perception vs. Reality: suvs and safety

People in SUVs may feel safer, but does the public really understand the risks that SUVs pose to their own drivers and passengers, not to mention others on the road? What are the safety issues raised by SUVs, and what role has their marketing played in creating the public's perception? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Keith Bradsher of The New York Times, Ford marketing consultant Martin Goldfarb, former NHTSA administrators Joan Claybrook and Jerry Curry, auto-safety analyst Brian O'Neill, and plaintiff attorney Tab Turner.


keith bradsher
Former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, he won the George Polk Award in 1997 for his reporting on SUVs and light trucks.
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[In the wake of Ford-Firestone] we have been talking about tires. But is this the scandal we should be talking about?

Everybody is focusing on the tragic deaths involving Firestone tires. ... But we are ignoring the elephant in the tent, which is the much broader problem created by sport utility vehicles, not just the Explorer. ...

Let me put that in a broader context. Surveys have found that most people don't realize how big a problem rollovers are. Even though they are about half a percent or so of all crashes, they are a huge part of traffic deaths. About 41,000 Americans a year are killed on the nation's roads. Eleven thousand of those deaths take place in rollovers; and about 1,900 of those 11,000 are in sport utility vehicles. That's about double the number of deaths you would expect, given the proportion of vehicles on the road that are sport utility vehicles. ... The problem of rollovers in SUVs is likely to get more serious because the number of SUVs is rising faster than automakers can do things to make the SUVs more stable. ...

Is part of the story here a vehicle that was a runaway success and was in some respects a savior for the auto industry, and that they just couldn't get in the way of that freight train?

Sport utility vehicles became the motor of Detroit's financial success in the 1990s. They couldn't afford not to sell them. ... The automakers' stock prices were zooming because of the profits they made. They never made more money on vehicles than they made on the sport utility vehicles, because they could make as much as $15,000 apiece in profits. One factory that makes the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator was making more profits than any other factory in any other industry in the world, and was making more profits than all but several dozen entire corporations in the world. That is how profitable this business was. ...

So in the last analysis, the real guarantor of safety in the design of the vehicles is the marketplace, is us demanding it?

The best guarantor of safety is an informed consumer who demands a safe vehicle. And that wasn't really happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when, despite frequent reports in Consumer Reports and on television about rollovers, consumers just loved the image of SUVs. These are image vehicles. These are not vehicles that are built for safety. And partly because the government also wasn't putting out a lot of information about the safety of these vehicles, the result was a fad for a class of vehicles that were inherently less stable than cars. ...

Tell us about the size incompatibility issue with SUVs.

... The Explorer and other sport utilities are built in such a way that makes them extremely dangerous to cars. In fact, a federal study found that the Explorer is 16 times as likely as the typical family car to kill the other driver in a crash. If you look at the numbers, almost as many people are being killed unnecessarily, additionally, in cars each year by Explorers as died in tire-related crashes of Explorers over the last decade. ...

Is it disingenuous for Ford to say that their SUV, or SUVs in general, are safer than cars?

It's a myth that SUVs are safer than cars. People in SUVs die just as often as people in cars; they just die differently. They are more likely to die in rollovers, and they are much more likely to kill other people. ...

Even the largest sport utility vehicles don't really make you appreciably more safe than you would be in a large car or minivan, and you will get much better gas mileage [in a car or minivan], you will produce a tiny amount of the air pollution, and you will not be putting your neighbors at an enormous risk. ...

Martin Goldfarb
A longtime marketing consultant to Ford, he worked on SUV campaigns starting in the early 1980s and was among the first to see their potential.
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Why is the sport utility vehicle so popular?

It filled a whole group of very important needs, both physical needs and psychological needs. ... Sport utility vehicles had this robust, aggressive design. ... They could take you anywhere; they were rugged. They did those kinds of things which reflected America's personality. ...

The other thing you should understand, the whole love affair with trucks in the United States moved beyond trucks as work vehicles. ... So out of the personal use of trucks grew the concept of a sport utility vehicle, higher off the ground, rugged, great visibility, because you felt you were in charge of the world. If anybody smaller than you got in front of you could kind of run them over -- even though you didn't want to do that -- but you had this feeling of personal power. ...

These vehicles really said, "America, we're risk takers, America, we're rugged."...

Sport utility vehicles were a part of that conception that life in America was about having a good time, but there was a lot of tease in it. Because most people, remember, never use sport utility vehicles to go off road. They drive them around cities. But there's this projection: "I could if I want to, even though I don't." ...

Today you can barely watch a television commercial that doesn't mention something about the vehicle safety. Why are car makers putting that message in their vehicles today?

... Safety has become a given today. ... Now the issue is what new safety devices can you put in there, whether it's safety curtains and six air bags and a whole bunch of other things you're going to see. So I think safety now has become an expectation, a given in the marketplace, and more and more companies are going to be screaming safety in order to satisfy consumer demand. ...

If you look at the safety features that are built into vehicles today, they're far greater than they were ten years ago. Now, I think if you project out ten years, there might be some stuff that are built in vehicles that we don't know today. And we may even know the technology today, but we may not know how to do it in a mass way. ... There's no use putting a feature out there if people collectively say, "It's an interesting feature, but I can't afford it." ...

The [lawyers] who go after Ford on this particular story of the SUV, and the Explorer in particular -- they trot out these memos, for example, that say your own engineer said you could have done four things, and you only did two of them. Or, you should have done that, because you could have.

... The reality is there are choices to make. They wanted to produce a product that would sell to this segment of the market at this price point. You couldn't put everything in it that you want. Something had to come out. And it may have been two out of the four safety features that were in that letter. Management has to make those choices. But to assume that management is morally irresponsible because they don't put everything they know about safety in every vehicle is, I think, being unfair. ...

I would say that the company is forever measuring what's acceptable, and always trying to stay a step ahead in terms of safety features. ...

Can good marketing do what an actual safety feature would do? In other words, can you lead people with marketing, make them feel safe and then not put all those real safety features in, but because they feel safe, it's OK?

No, I don't believe that. I think people are too smart. ... Good marketing is about convincing people to drive safely, don't drink when you drive, don't use your phone when you drive. Good marketing is about trying to get people to put their seat belts on when they get in the car.

If you look at any vehicle manufactured in America, right on the window it says "Buckle up." Every time you get in that car you're reminded about buckling up. It's not that the manufacturers have not tried to inform the public about what's good for them. I think they will continue to do that.

Joan Claybrook
She is president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, and was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977 to 1981.
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As a class of vehicles, are SUVs safe?

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

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

Do you think the public gets this?

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

Now, of course, they're being redesigned. And one of the things that is outrageous in my view is that the Department of Transportation does not do a good job of informing the public of the characteristics of motor vehicles. They don't say the 1990 to the 2001 Ford Explorer had this, and now the 2002 has that. ... By and large, the Department of Transportation does not give you much information as a consumer to help you make your own distinctions. And there are many SUVs that are on the road today -- new SUVs, older SUVs. Who knows the differences between them? Some are safer; some aren't. It's very confusing for the public. ...

People buy SUVs because they think they're safer, despite this entire history. ... Why is that? To what extent does the marketing of the vehicle enter in here?

The marketing of these vehicles is critical to their sales, because they show these vehicles in rugged work, on off-road adventures and they see them on the highway carrying all the kids to school. They see them on vacations. They see this as the multi-purpose vehicle for our family, that we can use it every day. We can use it for special occasions. We can use it when we want to go hunting and fishing. That's the way the public perceives these vehicles. ... They see them as bigger and sturdier. And in the public mind, [that] is equivalent to safety. ... And their own experience in driving them gives them that feeling. They're luxurious inside, and they are bigger than the rest of the vehicles on the highway, so they feel safer.

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

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

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

Brian O'Neill
He is president of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
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[Do you think there's a price to pay for the blame game that went on between Ford and Firestone?]

One of the problems with this fight 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. ...

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, "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. ...

Is the market the real guarantor of auto safety?

... I believe, today, that the marketplace is the most powerful force working in vehicle safety. ... If a product gets branded as being unsafe, it's going to hurt 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?

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 [Ford-Firestone] 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. ...

Jerry Curry
A retired major general in the U.S. Army, he headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1989 to 1992.
read the interview

... All cars that are offered for sale in America have to meet the federal motor vehicle safety standards. If those standards are valid and if they are real, it means that any car that comes off of the assembly line in America is safe. ... In those areas that are measured, it is safe. Now, if there is some unmeasured area, that's something else. ...

The federal government has been unable to develop a rollover standard. There is no standard measurement that we have that can tell you whether any vehicle is safe, from a rollover standpoint. ... You know lots of things, you know if it's higher and the center of gravity is off the ground higher, certainly it's going to be less stable than a low center of gravity. But there's so many things that we don't know. You can't make the judgment then that this vehicle, from a rollover standpoint, is safe or unsafe. You can't do that. Hopefully one day that will happen, but we can't do that today. ...

Specifically, about the SUV rollover problem -- doesn't this mean there should've been a standard [even if it was less than perfect] to apply to SUVs, so that we could somehow measure the stability of these vehicles, so that the public has some idea of which ones are less safe than others?

You cannot compare unless you have a valid device for comparison. The problem is, no one has been able to develop a valid device for comparison. And so, yes, intuitively I have some ideas about what makes a vehicle roll over and not roll over; intuitively I have that. But I really cannot prove that I'm correct. ...

Until last fall, when there was a static stability factor measurement -- and that's really, frankly, buried on the NHTSA website -- the American public had no way of knowing not only a) the difference between SUVs, but b) that SUVs are more prone to roll over in general.

Oh, I don't agree with you. The owner's manual tells you that, if you read your owner's manual. And there's a little thing on your dash, a little sticker up there, and it tells you, "This is not like a normal car." ...

I submit to you, the American public isn't stupid; they aren't dumb. You can get in any vehicle like that and drive it and know that it's different from driving a Cadillac. ...

Tab Turner
He is a product liability attorney who specializes in SUV rollover cases.
read the interview

Does the Explorer have a stability problem, regardless of the tire?

Yes, this vehicle is unstable with or without a tire failure. A tire failure precipitates the instability in the Explorer under these circumstances. But there are a lot of other things that can precipitate it.

A child comes out of the driveway on a tricycle and you swerve to avoid the child and then swerve to avoid an oncoming car; you will be upside down in this car. If you do that as a result of a dodging a deer on the roadway, if you take your eye off the roadway for a moment to turn around and make sure Johnny has his seat belt on or that Sarah has her seat belt on or that the kid's not climbing out of the child restraint seat and your vehicle eases over onto the shoulder and you hear the noise of the shoulder and the tire interacting and you turn around real fast and cut the steering wheel to keep from leaving the roadway, this vehicle will begin to yaw. And it is extremely difficult to control under those circumstances.

And when you're doing that at 55, 65, 75 miles an hour, these vehicles -- unlike station wagons and unlike passenger cars that they're compared with and marketed -- these vehicles will be upside down. And people don't understand that. ...

Ford Motor Company has told anybody who will ask them that the Explorer is a particularly safe vehicle, safer than passenger cars. And in terms of SUVs as a class, it's among the safest SUVs on the road. Is that just wrong?

No. I think it depends on what you're comparing. ... The question that you have to ask yourself with regard to the sport utility market is if you put the Explorer and the Suzuki Samurai and the Bronco II and the Isuzu Trooper and the Toyota 4Runner -- if you put all those vehicles in a room, somebody's going to be the worst and somebody's going to be the best out of that group.

But what we have to ask ourselves is, can we live with the best one? Can we really live with the best of these vehicles, given what we know they do? And I think the answer to that is no, we can't do that. We have to have changes in the design and the marketing of these vehicles. ...

Can you describe what happens to a human body inside a Ford Explorer when it rolls over at highway speeds?

... When these vehicles roll over, the seatbelt in these vehicles is not designed to tie you to the seat, and so you're heading towards the roof. The roof is so flimsy that it'll crush 10-12 inches. So in a normal mid-sized sport utility vehicle like the Explorer, you're going to be interacting with the roof. And what happens is, when that car slams down on the pavement at about 8-10 miles per hour -- because that's the amount of vertical velocity that's going -- the body is moving toward the roof; the roof is moving toward it, and it physically just crushes the person in between the seat and the roof. And puts so much dynamic pressure on it, that the spinal cord just snaps. ...

The other thing that can happen in a rollover crash is that if you're not crushed, and you get flailed around with your seat belt on, you can physically get your head outside of the window, because the seat belt's not doing what it's supposed to be doing. It's not designed to tie you to the seat. And sometimes what we see is, despite being belted, the head gets smushed between the pavement and the corner of the roof as it comes down and hits the pavement.

So these are very violent injuries. They're very, very, very severe injuries. In fact, some of the statistics show that rollover wrecks themselves account for almost a quarter of all severe injuries that occur in automobile crashes altogether. Rollover crashes are the less frequent type of accident mode, but causing more severe injuries. ...

What is it about SUVs that you think makes them so popular? Why do people like them so much?

I can answer that based upon my experience with what I've seen from the company's internal documents. These companies do focus groups virtually all the time, trying to feel what the market is feeling, what people think. And what I've learned from their focus group work, and from our focus group work in individual lawsuits, is that these vehicles have become very popular for females in this country, because females sit up higher in these vehicles. They get this feeling of safety, sitting up higher because they have a better field of vision. They feel more durable, stronger up high in these vehicles. ...

To what degree do we have a right to demand of a company like Ford that they do everything in their power to make a vehicle safe? Where do you draw the line? Ford says there is a certain amount of risk inherent in driving. What does the consumer have a right to expect from a product they bought?

... I think it's unreasonable for me or for a consumer to expect Ford Motor Company to prevent every death in every type of crash under every set of circumstances. Nobody's asking for that. That is an impossible request.

But what we do expect, I think, as consumers, is that you, Ford Motor Company, are doing everything possible. You're not just telling us; you are physically doing what you can, given the state of the market and the state of the art in technology, to make our vehicles safe in all of the foreseeable types of crashes, whether it's a frontal crash, a rear-end crash, a side-impact crash, or rollover crash. And to this day, there's not a company in this country -- General Motors, Chrysler or Ford -- that are using state of the art technology to provide protection to consumers in rollover crashes. Not one of them.

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