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...
nixon & detroit
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?


I find it ironic that the government has eliminated my ?choice? to maximize the safety of my family on the road because of its refusal to regulate SUV design.

I now have the "choice" to by an SUV that is inherently unsafe because it is prone to rollover OR the ?choice? to buy a small affordable car that is inherently unsafe on roads that are plagued with huge SUVs.

Carla Slebodnick
blacksburg, va


I worked for Ford Motor Company on the UN-46 and other Ford new car lines in the development phase. It was common knowledge that the change of names from Bronco to Explorer was aimed at disassociating the new vehicle line with the rollovers of the Bronco's featured in the newspapers daily.

You'd be surprised at what the auto manufacturers do to protect their interests and market share.

Mark Delridge
murfreesboro, tennessee


Your report on the history of SUV's was a much-needed airing of dirty laundry surrounding the SUV. It would have been a more well rounded report if you covered the foreign automakers entry into the SUV market (ie: did they make any changes in their SUVs to avoid the problems encountered with the Bronco II and Explorer).

I can understand why Ford was the primary focus of your report, they essentially created the boom for SUVs. If it wasn't for the fiasco concerning the Bronco II, Ford would have never switched the Bronco's name to Explorer. From a source I read, Ford changed the name of the second generation Bronco II only after the tests they duplicated from Consumer Reports showed the prototypes had the same propensity to rollover as the first generation Bronco II. Ford figured changing the name to Explorer would distance the new vehicle away from the first generation Bronco II.

Regarding the government's response, of lack of response, to the SUV - one cannot be too surprised. The government is controlled by lobbyists, and Detroit has an army of them. During the Firestone fiasco, I was perplexed as to why Ford semmingly escaped unscathed by the hearings while Firestone was pummeled. Now I know why.

The American consumer is a flighty bunch. 'Ignorance is bliss' is the motto of our country, and the television is the mecca of truth. Americans has bought into the automakers' advertising campains marketing SUVs as the 'must-have-go-anywhere' vehicle. Unfortunately, those entities trying to show the dangers of SUVs do not have the same access to such wide spread media; as good as your report was, it is limited due to the fact it is on public television. A much larger audience could have been reached if Frontline was on "Must-See-TV" scheduled back to back with Friends.

Consumers will continue to buy SUVs with an ever growing vengeance.

Until the American Consumer wakes up and educates themselves to the realities of the SUV, the market will only continue to expand, and automakers will have no incentive to stop building these mammoth machines. Unfortunately, I have no faith in Americans becoming educated anytime soon.

Robert Stadnik
phoenix, arizona


I found your program interesting, informative and would recomend it be shown again soon. But I feel I should point out that no amount of pending legislation will help the 80 million SUV, Van and pickup truck owners that are currently registered for the road avoid the rollover problem.

As an automotive engineer who has spent considerable time researching the rollover problem and the vehicle chassis/suspension design flaws that contribute to it; I am happy to say that there is light at the end of the tunnel and it is not a train coming the other way. One company in Nevada has produced a product to help reduce the propensity of rollover of high CG vehicles and it is on the market now.

I feel that it is worthwhile to let your viewers know about Rollgard made by Amtech Corporation (see

This new technology to reduce rollover propensity of vehicles is described in my SAE paper # 2002-01-1604 given at the 2002 SAE vehicle dynamics conference in Detroit last May. The paper is entitled: Opposing or Counter spring (Bi-Linear)technology for optimum vehicle dynamic roll control without computers. The technology is simple to apply and works on the principle that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Simply put, If you can delay the vehicle roll movement at the millisecond it is beginnimg it will give the vehicle a better chance to avoid the rollover starting. By way of example; if you were standing on a ledge and started to lean out and just as you started to loose control and fall, someone grabbed you by the sweater with about 10 pounds of force and pulled you back, it would save you. If they waited untill you were at 45 degrees from verticle it would take a great deal more force to pull you back. The RollGard works the same way. It delays the roll when it starts. If you can induce a vehicle to stay level with stabilizers, it will also help when you have a tire blowout because the blown tire will not cause the vehicle to tip down so bad and upset the stability. Interesting note: Amtech has offered the Rollgard device for test to NHTSA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Center for Automobile Safety. They all declined to test it. Keep up the good work, I know that many of us motorists appreciate being informed.

Peter Bryant VP Eng. Amtech Corp, Las Vegas Nevada.

Peter Bryant
las vegas, nevada


The presentation on Frontline was simply sensational... what bothered me so much about the Ford/Firestone hearings, was that Firestone was given the complete hit, while Ford seemed to say... it's simply not our problem... (aftfer your presentation I learned about the strong Ford lobby)

I'm not saying that Firestone tires might not have had problems... but, when a tire blows while traveling, your car should NOT roll-over, the roof should Not collapse, and the passengers should Not be killed...

I was the driver of a passenger car, when going 70 mph, my left rear tire blow apart... other than a "wobble", the car (a buick Le Sabre) was easily steered off the road to safety...

I presently drive a Volvo wagon, and recently was forced into a extremely hard turn by another car to avoid collison... the volvo "nose-driveed" so hard on the passenger front end to avoid collison, that I thought I had blown the left front tire... not only did No collison occur, I easily came-out of the turn, pulled off the road, inspected the car, and continued on my way, because everything was fine... (other than my nerves)... If I had been in a SUV, that turn would have rolled the vehicle over, and probably I would have been killed...

People must really look at what they are buying... not only does my Volvo hold the road extremely well... it also has more cargo space than many SUV's on the highway, is easy to park, easy to drive, and doesn't use an abundance of gasoline to run...

Thank you for a truly sensational Frontline broadcast!

Lynne Stenger

lynne stenger
houston, texas


Whiners of America unite. You now have a new leader. Frontline. When did America become the home of the Risk Free Society? Which liberal judge ruled that the US Government's role is to justify the actions of the one rather than protect the liberties of the many?

Why are we no longer responsible for our own actions: Like driving too fast, not checking the tire pressure, and over reacting in driving emergencies. I have been a fan of Frontline because it seems that its liberal bias was begrudgingly controlled. Apparently no longer. Please consider the use of my tax dollars to produce your liberal drivel under protest.

Scott Campbell
chubbuck, idaho


I have a 1986 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer. It has been raised 2 foot higher and has a modified Chevy 454 cu inch motor pushing at least 500 Horsepower. I love it. It is faster than a Porsche it guzzles a lot of gas. It is very fast it has 4 wheel drive and I take it off the road as much as possible. I am about to install gun racks to keep trial lawyers and liberal democrats away.

If you want to drive a yugo thats your right. I won't. If your so "stooopid" that you don't know that it is easier to roll over a SUV, than you deserve to die. They are not designed to take hairpin turns at the race track at 70 mph. The nhtsa is nothing but a waste of tax money. Remember the best government governs the least. Get smart, get rid of bureaucrats/lawyers and problem is solved.

riverview, florida


The SUVs nowdays remind me of the old 1940s cars with the high center of gravity and were easy to turn over just like what is going on with the SUVs of today. It seems like the engineers today should drive one of the old cars and they could tell right away what not to do. I would never own one, just because they are unstable compared to a car.

We have two cars and I have had an experience with deer in both of them. One night in my wifes Millinia I come around a sharp curve and a deer was just standing and not moving at all. I stomped on the brakes and with a little bit of , if I do say so myself, some good steering I was able to stop before I hit him. I know with a SUV at the speed that I was going and the sharp curve, and hitting the brakes it would have been roll over time. Another time with my Volvo S80 a deer come out of the brush alongside of the road and at the last minute he tried to turn back. I yanked the car away from him and then had to cut back very quick to stay on the road. This was during the day and both the deer and I had good vision. I could see his fur just inches away from my front fender for a brief few seconds. This was another time that I was thankful that I was driving a car that had a low center of gravity.

I am not saying that either car was the best in handling that you can get, but both of them done what I wanted them to do at a time of emergency and they both done it very well. I think that SUVs need to get better gas milage, close to what cars get. They need to be lowered for better handling. There is no use for the high ground clearance that they all have because I dare say that 95 percent of the people that own them don't get off road. Who wants to go off road in their new SUVs anyway and get them all scratched up.

I doubt if the car companies would lose any money by building them this way.

glen carbon, ill.


Last year my seven year old little boy was killed after a de-tread and rollover of our Land Rover Discovery. This SUV seems very prone to rollover as well.

The tire which de-treaded was a Continental Ameri550 AS. Congress asked for an investigation of this tire after the House Energy and Commerce Committee under Billy Tauzin found that the failure rate of this tire was far worse than the Firestone tires they were meant to replace. Of the 60 tires Ford approved, the House set aside 11 for a closer inspection. Of these 11 only one was recommended for a complete investigation.

The NHTSA was asked to investigate the Continental Ameri550 AS. Their "investigation" however, appeared to consist only of asking Continental tire for their data and opinions. NHTSA did not, as far as their report shows, do ANY actual testing. Then, instead of reporting back to Congress, they reported directly to the press, in Detroit no less, that the tires were safe. What they failed to mention was that Continental tire had appearently deceived them on a previous investigation of their tires in 1993. Yet NHTSA was happy to accept their data at face value this time. Joan Claybrook, former head of NHTSA, said that Continental tire had lied during the investigation.

The failure rate of the Firestone tires replaced was 9 per million, while the failure rate of the Ameri550 was 124 per million or ten times higher. Yet NHTSA reported to the Detroit press that they were a safe replacement for the Firestone.

Ford removed them from their approved replacement list but Congress, by then moved on to Enron and Martha Stewart never bothered to follow up on the investigation. In fact, Congressman Tauzin's office was suprised to hear about way the investigation was conducted when I presented them with a copy of the report.

I think your report pointing out that former NHTSA officials (Steed and Curry) are hired by auto and tire companies to lobby Congressmen for their new bosses casts some doubt about how willing they are to confront the industy while at NHTSA. Especially if fat jobs can come their way after they leave NHTSA. I have asked NHTSA to reopen the investigation but little can move a government agency determined to find nothing. Continental tire was aware of my son's death during the time of the investigation but appearently did not pass that information on to NHTSA.

The bottom line is that Congress and government agencies are not concerned. The auto and tire industry have a very strong voice in Washington and if it were not for shows like yours which ask the hard questions, nothing would ever change for the little guy. Let your critics consider that. Keep up the good work!

Ron Hirn
mcallen, texas


Having owned and driven a Jeep Cherokee for 16 yrs and also having been a certified paraperfessional in the field of driver education I feel

It is not the design of the SUV or the tires that have caused the deathtoll to rise. If the vehicle is operated in a manner consistant with it's design parametersit is no less safe than any sedan on the road today. Tyhe problem with SUVs lies behind the steering wheel. SUVs are designed and built to get from point A to point B over any terrain but not at 70 or 80 MPH.

Also tread separations do not cause rollovers no matter what brand they may be. It is the action of the driver after the tread separates that causes the rollover. Tread separations are caused by excess heat from underinflated tires. Tires cannot be set and forgotten pressure must be checked regularly and often. I drove on a set of Firestone Wilderness ATs for almost 40,000 miles including a 10,000 mile roundtrip from SanAntonio Texas to Anchorage Alaska on every type of road from Interstate to gravel road and never had any problem.

In conclusion there are people driving on the road today that are either not concentrating on what they're doing, or are operating beyond their level of competency and should not be opeerating a motor vehicle in the first place

James Monteith
san antonio, texas


I couldn't believe this actually allowed this to be aired.

All Cars are prone to roll overs when driven by morons.

The fact is the SUV is far more safer than any of these cars that are made today.

The cars made today are spot welded sheet metal with no real frame.

These cars are made to buckle up in a crash, supposedly absorbing the force of the impact. Well let me tell you that when these cars buckle they also buckle up on peoples limbs and killing them also. At least in a SUV you would have a much better chance of surviving due to a much less invasion into the passenger compartments.

I suggest you look more into the problems with the cars made today. Especially the problems with passenger compartment invasions not only from SUV's but other passenger cars.

raymore, missouri


I am a proud owner of a '93 Ford Explorer and have been since purchasing it in '93. Your show really frustrated me in that it failed to teach the viewers one crucial thing, how to think for themselves. We are becoming a society that relies on being spoon fed their knowledge. I know my vehicle is top heavy. I have always known it is a risk. I have weighed the tradeoffs and stayed true to what I wanted.

Please stop making me out to be a victim of some mass automaker conspiracy or, even worse, a suburbanite trying to feel like an outdoorsman. I have made my decision and will happily live, or die, with it.

lexington, ky


Your SUV show cited a 1986 study by myself and Leon Robertson showing the correlation between vehicle instability and injurious rollovers. Reading your viewers' responses and reflecting on the show, I realize now that our study left some major points unsaid:

1. It is virtually impossible for any driver of an unstable vehicle, including a professional, to avoid the potential for rolling over when an unforeseen emergency demands an instant, severe turn of the steering wheel. (Most SUVs and many vans and pickups fit this description.) There is no specific, reliable handling maneuver that will prevent a rollover once the lateral forces on the unstable vehicle exceed a tolerable level - a level, that is, at which more stable vehicles will simply skid. This is one reason that manufacturers don't provide an instruction for rollover avoidance. Driver self-assurance and training won't help; lower centers of gravity, wider wheel bases and improved handling components for vehicles will.

2. The injurious scenarios -- the rollovers -- are being set up by the unstable vehicles. But the injuries themselves are caused by impacts of heads, bodies and limbs with hard surfaces outside or inside the vehicles. A major contributor is the crushing in of SUV roofs on occupants who, ironically, are even more at risk when being held in place by the seat belts they are mandated to use and that protect them in other crashes. As NHTSA and the companies have known for decades, the solution is stronger, crush resistant roofs that meet tough dynamic tests requirements. Yet today's industry-written Federal roof-crush standard, which requires nothing more than pushing a plate against the roof at low levels of force, has not been improved for nearly 30 years.

3. The idea that people have a "right" to knowingly "take a risk" by choosing and driving unduly hazardous vehicles is itself hazardous. The unintended (but foreseeable) crashes of those vehicles occur in the public domain, on the highways. Those crashes injure not just their drivers but passengers, occupants of other vehicles, and pedestrians who have not agreed to take such risks. The resulting medical and long-term care costs, which are astronomical, are borne by all of us. We don't allow people to take the risk of drinking contaminated water or infected milk; we require hazard prevention via purification and pasteurization. We owe ourselves nothing less in the prevention of highway deaths and injuries.

4. As the show pointed out, the manufacturers and government have been derelict in failing to aggressively warn people against buying such hazardous vehicles as well as curtailing their manufacture and sales. Meanwhile, fortunes are being spent (and made) by industry in promoting SUV demand and sales. Against that, how can car buyers, particularly young and trend-conscious ones, resist? No more easily than they can resist the marketing blitzkrieg for cigarettes. If needlessly hazardous vehicles must be sold, manufacturers should at least be required to warn their potential buyers in the showroom, very strongly and in very graphic terms, of the pain and suffering they may bring on themselves and others by owning and driving such vehicles.

Ben Kelley, Acting Executive Director, Public Health Advocacy Institute

boston, ma


My daughter was killed in an Explorer rollover Jan 2001. She never left the road... none of those pesky "tripping mechanisms" SUV defenders are always talking about.

The State Trooper that was called to the scene had just returned to his office from investigating another Explorer rollover at the exact location my daughter was killed.

No tread separation... no drinking.. no side impact. These damn things simply rollover. If my daughter had been in her little Escort wagon instead of my Explorer, I'm convinced she might have spun out, but she wouldn't have rolled.

Brooks Nolen
houston, tx


In your program what haunted me most was the images of large vehicles crushing smaller ones. Like, that's a selling point for big cars?

Wednesday 4:35pm, Nancy looks down to change a CD track. She looks up and Whoa! Stupid skateboarder rolls into the street. Her reaction is quick and she misses the kid, but her Navigator leans and loses stability as she struggles with the wheel and BAM! Accidents happen, could be anyones fault, but because people died in the Civic she hit, the moment just before impact will be thoroughly dissected. Was she speeding or breaking any laws at 4:35? How many glasses of wine did she really drink at that lunch meeting?

Lets say she was a perfect citizen at 4:35pm. She no longer has to deal with passing the victims family members at the courthouse and she finally gets to go home and quietly live with herself. Although she rarely leaves home anymore, Nancy becomes a statistic favoring big cars.

And what if the science guys are right? Picture climate change, your grandkids wandering through the deserts of Oregon and Idaho searching for water. Unthinkable, "Fuzzy Science", perhaps, but shall we passively gamble our kids futures on it? World leaders who gathered in Kyoto to address climate change were stunned when America walked away. When we buy SUVs, we say no to the Kyoto Protocol, Drill in Alaska, and keep gas cheap.

Detroit didnt do this to America. We as consumers made SUVs trendy, and we have the power to turn things around. Own a local store? Put up a "No SUV" sign for a few days. Got a nice list of email addresses? Shoot out some SPAM like "Hey folks, if you havent noticed, Our Roads Are Paved." Got a small car? Grab a few of those small sticky letters and spell out "gaspig" or something. There are a lot of clever ways to tell people in your community "Hey, lose the big ride!" Just think, you, one person, could do great things for the planet just by making people in your town think twice at the dealership!

Joe Jennings
redondo beach, ca


Let me tell you what I find truly infuriating about this edition of Frontline. At no point was any valid attempt to inform the viewer of the OVERALL relative safety of SUVs as a vehicle class. The key question for any consumer has got to be: Am I more, or less, safe in general while driving this vehicle.

The answer of course is: You are much safer riding in an SUV!

In fact, although the data is not easy to obtain it can be discovered.

If I thought Frontline producers were generally liberal arts ninnies they they could be forgiven for this gross misrepresentation of fact. But clearly this episode had the answer already figured out before they started. Real facts and logic were then used or abandoned to support the conclusion they desired.

Andy McDermott
santa clara, california