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 just got around to looking at this web site and again am amazed at how poor the reporting is. As is sadly becoming typical of a once great news organization, PBS has become a blatantly biased "activist" organ committed only toward advancing some agenda. Pity. I used to be an enthusiastic supporter, but have started paying attention to more neutral sources.

Any mention that SUV's are the safest vehicles on the road in overall fatalities? Any mention that the Ford Explorer is (95-97 years according to the actual crash data on the safest 4 door 4WD vehicle in its class? Are we to assume that these vehicles are so popular only because we've been tricked by an evil auto industry? Sheesh!

And that poppycock about the Nixon Administration meeting with Industry executives as part of establishing automotive safety policy is from the same folks who act horrified that the Bush administration met with oil industry executives as part of developing their energy policy I suppose this is to be expected from people who avoid consulting with people in the medical industry when deciding what to do about their brain damage.

bear gap, pa

FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Thank you for sharingyour concerns. Our program explored how the nation had arrived at a rollover scandal in the summer of 2000. We found a history of problems with SUV rollover, and a lack of regulatory action, stretching back decades.

SUV rollover hurts the overall safety record of SUVs. There are, of course, many different models and makes of SUVs, and the program made a great effort to show that the Ford-Firestone scandal was mistaken in its narrow focus on one tire and one SUV -- the Explorer.

On the Nixon meetings, we respectfully disagree. For a President to intervene and override the technical decisions of his secretary of transportation on issues of public safety -- and for his administration to mislead the public about the nature of this decision while exploiting the opportunity to build closer political ties with the auto industry-- only hurts our democracy.


Any knowledgeable consumer understands the risks involved with owning an SUV. But what about the dangers these vehicles pose to other drivers? I certainly didn't 'sign on' to be killed by one of these gigantic gas-guzzlers! At least truck drivers have to get a special license... any 16-year-old can drive a Ford Excursion.

Many people are missing the point of public safety. SUVs are dangerous... to the passengers and to other drivers (a.k.a. the Public). They should be subjected to stricter standards. Period. Using consumer choice as an argument is way off... your car-buying decision could have a negative effect on others.

Safety was a large concern for me when I bought a car last year. I ended up getting a 2001 BMW 325. Pound for pound it's one of the safest cars on the road (love that German engineering). It probably still won't save me when I get 'T-boned' by a Ford Expedition!

FRONTLINE was right when they said it's becoming an arms race... go BIG or go home. Too bad driving an SUV is as dangerous as being hit by one. Now that's irony!

Kevin McCleary
reston, va


I drive a Toyota RAV4 '01 and am careful not to overestimate its stability-however there are a few extreme maneuvers that sometimes must be exercised to Avoid an accident-here in the heavy traffic-highly aggressive driving environment of the Houston area. My SUV performed well each time, but did feel "Tippy."

Unfortunately Frontline failed to address the "Redneck" Goons who outfit trucks of all sizes with "Killer" Bumpers, Outrageous Tire Sizes and Speed toward you with their projected Death Wish psychology-just let one of those hit you and that's all folks. Now, lets address 18 wheelers and tow truck operators!!!-I've nearly been Smushed by more of them than SUV Drivers-I am glad my little SUV can hotfoot me out of a situation-it's economical, Sporty, rugged and has a few good safety perks. Lord Bless Toyota.

Lisa McGuire-Smith
friendswood, tx


I read the comments from everyone else and am amazed at the stubborness of some to realize the benefits of making SUV's lower and wider and safer.

They don't want government intervention?

I am in a power wheelchair with a broken neck as a result of a rollover of a 1993 Toyota 4-Runner.

I sure as he*l wish government intervention would have lowered that vehicle 5 inches and widened it 2 inches before our accident.

I was a passenger seatbelted in the rear seat. Even with a rollover, I would not have expected to have a broken neck- I expect the cage of the vehicle to protect me.

I hope those idiots who think they "know how to drive" an SUV will stop their petty judgements of others and pumping up how great their skill is before their own rollover.

It's their passengers- kids, girlfriends, camping buddies I'm concerned for- not the idiots. They are the ones who keep safety standards low anyway, by thinking "free market forces" give us the safest products. So maybe if we could somehow keep them driving these unsafe vehicles without letting them harm pasengers or bystanders, eventually the rollovers would take them out and the rest of us would be better off!

camdenton, missouri


I am disappointed in this report.

I will not dispute the assertion that SUVs are more prone to roll over than most passenger cars. I know this to be true because the basic laws of physics cannot be changed.

However, this report was shamelessly one sided. You criticize the lobbying efforts against roll over regulations, but it is clear to me that this report is just another form of lobbying. It's just in the other direction. The main focus of the report should have been to educate consumers on the risks of SUV performance. Instead, you abandoned objective jounalism (with balanced reporting) and produced a political activist piece focusing on a single point of view: SUVs are dangerous and the automakers negligent. Here are some examples:

-you list fatality statistics but do not qualify them. Were the drivers negligent (drunk, speeding, not wearing seat belts)? Unqualifed use of statistics is extremely dangerous because it can be misleading. The phrase "lying with statistics" exists for a reason. In the end, these numbers do not help prove your point, they just smell of sensationalism.

-you critize the use of crash footage to combat the bill to increase CAFE requirements, but you make no attempt to disprove that lighter cars would increase highway fatalities. Was the decision by the head of the NHTSA correct? Was the data he based this decision on correct? Would you make a decision if you knew it would result in more fatalities?

-you show footage of the overturned Blazer at the end of the report and you ask the police officer or rescue person about SUV roll overs and low speeds, yet make no attempt to explain the circumstances of the accident. What was the cause? What were the injuries, if any? How would the situation be different if the vehicle was a passenger car? It appears that the Blazer was struck broadside by another vehicle and sent sliding into a curb. A situation that could overturn many vehicles. I don't know this for a fact because you never tell me. I just see an overturned vehicle resting on a curb with damage to both passenger side doors that look like it was caused by another vehicle. Am I wrong? The use of this accident footage without explaining the circumstances is just plain old exploitation.

I close in stating again how disappointed I am with Frontline and this report. I have never written a response to something I have seen on TV before, but, this report was so reckless, I felt I had to write. I have always respected Frontline but am afraid I will look upon it differently now.

Jim Lemens
ann arbor, mi

FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Thank you for sharing your concerns. The question of whether a driver is ultimately responsible for an accident is separate from whether that accident is likely to lead to a rollover, a type of accident that results in particularly catastrophic injuries. The physics do dictate (and the data reflect) that SUVs roll more easily, and the SUV rollover death rate is far higher than other types of vehicles.

The size argument -- that bigger cars are safer than smaller cars -- is complicated by many factors. However, defeating stricter CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards in the early 1990s did not reduce the risks posed by the increasing size disparity within the vehicle fleet (i.e., the risk posed to small vehicles by large vehicles), but instead helped clear the way for ever larger vehicles to enter the market, in turn posing ever greater risks to drivers of smaller vehicles. The argument that defeating the CAFE legislation would save lives simply doesn't hold up.

Regarding the final scene, the SUV had been hitin the side atcity speedsby a smaller car.It then flipped, and the roof was crushed. We believe the particulars of that accident do not undermine but support the larger issue of SUV rollover, supported by the data.


I challenge this statement from your site and the show: "In the 10-year period during which Ford SUVs outfitted with Firestone tires caused some 300 deaths in rollover accidents, more than 12,000 people died in SUV rollovers unrelated to tire failure." Specifically, the "300 deaths" figure. NHTSA claimed 271 from various vehicles, but their data supported 167.

More details of the NHTSA data and some perspectives are available at

Tim Mahar
manchester, tn

FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Thank you for your comment. The 271 figure reflects the number of deaths reported to NHTSA as of September 5 of last year. Whether the figure is 271 or, as you argue, 167, the number is particularly high for defect-related deaths. And either number is dwarfed by the overall number of rollover fatalities through the 1990s.


When my wife wanted to replace her Mitsubishi Eclipse "crush-mobile" (Her words) we thought about an SUV, then realized they had the rollover problem and opted for a Volvo instead because it's a much safer vehicle than an SUV.

My only question, to add to Fred Bertagnolli's comment and the gentleman fron Chicago, is that when Ford knew they had a rollover problem, why not at least fix the roof to keep it from crushing the driver in a rollover? Adding seat belt pretensioners like the Europeans would have kept the driver in the seat, and had the roof held its shape, there would have been many fewer deaths. Sure, it might not have been avaialable for "Job #1" but they could have made some tweaks in the sheet metal structure by the next model year to keep the roof from caving in and saved many from death and paralysis, not to mention the millions on the lawsuits.

The Europeans have a rollover roof structure standard that hasn't been adopted here. It's a simple test that launches the car into a roll. Ford sells cars in Europe, they must meet the European standard. I can't believe the execs in North America didn't know about it. Trust me, I won't buy a domestic vehicle until I know FOR SURE it can meet the rollover strength standard.

sunland, ca


As a former car salesman , I feel that they should stop the selling of SUV's. These vehicles were designed for construction use and not for these clueless morons with one hand on the cell phone and the other applying make-up. If you ever want proof as to how dangerious these vehicles are just drive around Boca Raton, Florida one day.

When we never once told the consumer about the perchance for roll over with the higher center of gravity. Now you have these clueless people who are following the trend set up by the industry/government, driving these death traps. As anyone from the South Florida area know 99.9% of all people who reside in Boca Raton run off of Sail Boat Fuel then you couple this with the high roll over chance with a SUV and you are asking for disaster on the highway.

My job has me on the road most of the day and I cannot wait until the day is done to go home and get away from the road and the stress and danger that these drivers and SUV's cause. The Government needs to look out for the safty of the masses and not the wallets of the fat cats of the auto industry.

Michael O'Donnell
oakland park, florida


What I don't understand is, if I'm willing to accept the greater risk of roll over, why won't the manufacturers protect me with adequate roll over protection.

I had assumed that there was some sort of roll over protection built into my Dodge Durango. If there is, I cann't find any info to indicate there is. As I have become better educated about the issue, all I have been able to discern is my roof structure will be down to the cowl. You have better protection in a convertible where the windshield frame has been beefed up to act as a roll bar.

In conclusion, I wouldn't mind going upside down so much, if I had a reasonable expectation the the roof structure wouldn't crush me and I don't.

fred bertagnolli
redding, ca


I strongly disagree with your assertion that the Explorer is not significantly more accident prone than other vehicles. If you read the following report:

it goes into great detail to try and downplay the base statistics concerning SUV's, but the cold hard facts are that according to table 10 on page 14, a 4-door Explorer has a single vehicle fatality rate of 90 per million driver miles, versus the next highest of 36 for the Chevy Tracker.

It has to be said, this report is a gross travesty. It's authors go to great lengths to choose "environmental factors" from different states that just happen to provide the statistical weightings necessary to make the Explorer fade into the background among it's peers, but even with all this fudging, the facts remain. The Explorer is nearly 3 times more likely to give a fatal single vehicle fatality than any other SUV.

NHTSA authors that do not know the difference between the "logistical regression analysis" to which they repeatedly refer and the statistical regression analysis they claim to have done can hardly be a credible source for the data on which you appear to rely in assuring consumers that the Explorer is no more dangerous than any ohter SUV.

nyc, ny


Just as cigarette smoking has been found to impair non-smokers from 2nd degree smoke, it seems SUVs also fatally impair non-SUV drivers.

A Honda Civic, which is rated the safest car in its class and is almost 4xs efficient fuel wise as any SUV - is at extreme risk riding on the same roads as SUVs. The same applies to the current Honda and Toyota hybrids.

What do your experts recommend we buy to be safe on the road - safe from the SUVs - while still maintaining our choice to purchase fuel efficient, traditionally safe CARS?

Kerry Prichett
alameda, ca


It is ironic to find Ford Expeditions, Tahoes and Silverados displaying stars and stripes. Don't they realize the money they burn on fuel for these monsters, go directly to countries with oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. Sadly these are the countries that aid terrorist groups and instigate the poor to become terrorists because of oppression.

US imports 15% of its oil from Saudi Arabia, if SUV's are only used for offroad purposes and not for shuttling to Macy's or Starbucks's, US may not have to depend so much on Saudis.

tyler, texas


The basic design, and size and weight, of SUVs will make them safer in some situations and have certain advantages (vastly more solid and safe in crashes, far greater foul weather and off road abilities, cargo space, more reliable, avoidance of the problems caused by CAFE compliance), but it will also give it obvious problems.

Anyone who has ever driven a SUV, and driven a car, can feel they can't corner as well as a sedan. And the sedan can't carry as much or drive as well off-road. Anyone curious about this can find out in far greater detail in any car review article. So the implication that people don't realize this is specious. [At least as specious as the special's unfounded implication that a 2 inch widening of the tracks would make a significant change in vehicles that are FEET higher then cars with the same wheelbase and track width.]

The real issue is that folks are choosing something the safety advocates, and seemingly the reporters, don't like. Folks love these things. Its a personal choice thing.

Some makers have made SUV's with better handling, but the market never raced to them. Sedans with vastly better handling, similar seating room, and vastly lower costs; have failed and gone out of production to free up factory space for more SUV's. I.E. people want the SUV's as they are!

Get over it Frontline! Everyone knows they handel like tuna boats, and can roll like a ball if we screw up on the road. We really are able to think for ourselves, your permission or not.

Kelly Starks
kenosha, wisconsin


If one is convinced by the program that SUVs are basically unsafe, can one feel comfortable selling it and if not what should one do since a SUV is a major investment?

Years ago I had a roomate who had a Pinto who driving on the freeway so a car rear end another Pinto which burst into flames. In tears she called her parents who helped her buy another car and she sold her Pinto. I always wondered if she felt guilty since she felt her car was unsafe.

E Hu
los angeles , ca


I applaud your production staff for exposing the "politics of dancing" between our government and the auto makers.

I don't know too much about other SUV manufacturers problems, but I can remember, while working as a technical supervisor for Ford, the first Explorer that was delivered to the dealership I was associated with that I had the opportunity to drive.

It felt so soft that it seemed like it was going to fall over on its own. I came away with the opinion that these vehicles were an accident waiting to happen. I surmised immediately that the track was too narrow, the center of gravity too high, but also that the spring rates were too soft and that the offset of the wheels was too negative. All of this, coupled with a low rate capacity tire, was enough to prove these vehicles unstable, as your report evoked.

Understanding the marketing strategy as to who these under-built trucks were to be sold to ( soccer moms/weekend warrior dads ), as well as the schedule in which introduction was to be met, precluded any possible changes in 1st year production.

What I do blame Ford for is their unwillingness to address these concerns for the entire production run of all the Explorers leading up to the changes in the 2002 model. After initial introduction there was more than ample time to upgrade the steering and suspension components neccessary to make these vehicles safer and more reliable overall. It seems that Ford just took the profit thinking mode of "If it's not broke (yet), why fix it?". Also I'm sure that Ford's bean counters had their say which curtailed any efforts to upgrade any component which would have cut into profits.

chicago, illinois