“If you put Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Attila the Hun in a room and ask everybody sitting in this room: ‘Let’s compare these three guys and let’s decide who’s the best and who’s the worst,’ somebody’s going to be No.1 and somebody’s going to be No.2 and somebody’s going to be No.3.
“The question 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 all in a room, somebody’s going to be the worst and somebody’s going to be the best out of that group.” – renowned plaintiff attorney Tab Turner
At the height of the Ford/Firestone tire crisis in 2000-2001, that’s how attorney Tab Turner responded to assertions – based on statistical analysis of crash reports – that the Ford Explorer was among the safest SUVs in the world.
Trial lawyers like Turner and hyperventilating journalists had Americans terrified their Manson-Gacy-Hun mobiles would flip over with the slightest wrong move. If a Ford Explorer blew a tire, disaster seemed inevitable because media reports linked the vehicles with new deaths almost daily, eventually connecting more than 270 fatalities to Explorer rollovers in the U.S., alone.
Despite tests by Car & Driver magazine (and others) that showed the SUV easily could be brought to a safe stop from 70 mph (113 km/h) after a catastrophic blowout, most media coverage of Explorer rollover deaths treated drivers as powerless to avoid their fate.
“We're convinced that if you experience a tire failure – on an Explorer or any other vehicle – and concentrate on keeping the vehicle rolling straight and on the pavement, you have an excellent chance of bringing it to a safe halt and ensuring that your tire failure remains an inconvenience rather than turning into a tragedy,” Car & Driver Editor Csabe Cere wrote in the January 2001 edition
Testifying Before Congress Common
CEO Jacques Nasser was called to appear before Congress, and Ford was painted as an incompetent, uncaring corporation that put profits ahead of safety and covered up defects for years.
Only later was it confirmed even though Firestone tires were defective, there was nothing wrong with the Ford Explorer. It also came to light most rollover deaths could have been avoided if drivers had kept their tires properly inflated, worn a seatbelt and not panicked and violently jerked the steering wheel.
Federal crash data show most deaths to motor vehicle occupants are the result of drivers making mistakes or breaking the law, not defects, not Charles Manson cars, not evil automakers. Legislators, drivers and journalists need to understand this.
“Alcohol, speed, not paying attention and not wearing safety belts are the big factors,” says Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman Russ Rader.
While there are few similarities between Ford’s tire crisis and GM’s current issue with malfunctioning ignition switches, a disturbing new trend is emerging: Penalties for making substandard parts and failing to recall them quickly are growing exponentially larger and more punitive while the bar for what constitutes a potentially deadly defect is getting low. The current maximum fine is $35 million. Safety activists say it should be $300 million.
This trend is forcing soaring recall rates as all automakers scramble to fix windshield wipers that may not operate after a jump start and every flickering taillight, fearing giant government fines and possible criminal charges if these “defects” somehow are linked to a fatality. Most importantly, driver error and the concept of personal responsibility are being ignored.
Congress Must Focus on Improvement, Not Penalties
As toxic and silly as the rhetoric surrounding the Ford/Firestone crisis became, lawmakers ultimately recognized driver error was the root cause of most SUV rollovers, and they enacted the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act on Nov. 1, 2000. Among other things, the act required all new vehicles be equipped with tire pressure monitoring systems by 2007 that alert drivers when a tire is dangerously underinflated.
Congress also required all new vehicles be equipped with electronic stability control systems by 2012. ESC now is widely regarded as the most important safety device since the seatbelt, capable of preventing more than 30% of all vehicle fatalities.
These legislative solutions recognize driver error usually is responsible for serious crashes. TPMS and ESC systems prevent these mistakes and already have saved thousands of lives and will save tens of thousands more.
Working with GM, Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., must come up with real reforms, not just punitive fines, to prevent future issues such as GM’s faulty ignition switch fiasco. That could include working on new types of manufacturing design software that correlates the relationship of minor parts to the function of crucial safety systems. It could be a mandate to require keyless ignition systems in all vehicles in five years. Or it could require more detailed studies on how vehicles can be kept safer as they age.
What is not needed are more $1-billion fines and other measures designed to intimidate the auto industry and empower trial lawyers.
The Ford/Firestone crisis led to important changes that created safer vehicles for everyone. It would be nice if faulty GM ignition switches could lead to further safety improvements, and not just more shiny private jets for Tab Turner wannabes.