March 10, 2003

SUVs - Suddenly Upside-down Vehicles: Too dangerous for professional test drivers, but safe enough for families

Bronco II Rollover PhotosAutomakers didn’t just stumble onto the sport utility vehicle. They researched and studied its every detail, looking for the perfect combination of power, comfort, appeal and convenience. Market research helped Ford arrive at just the right look and feel for what became an extraordinary chapter in America’s love affair with the automobile.

But at least one SUV manufacturer, Ford, had equally important information on the dangers of SUVs that company executives systematically and deliberately ignored. An Environmental Working Group review of internal Ford Motor Company documents obtained in a series of SUV rollover cases against Ford shows that:

3,826 people died in Bronco II and Explorer rollovers between 1983 and 2001.

  • Ford engineers abandoned critical road tests with the Bronco II, which, with modest changes, went on to become the Explorer, because these safety tests were too dangerous for test drivers [Excerpt | Full document]. In safety tests at speeds as slow as 30 miles per hour, the Bronco II repeatedly tipped up on its protective outriggers, clear proof that the vehicles were very likely to roll over in the hands of the driving public. [Excerpt | Full document] | [Excerpt | Full document]. Less than six months after discontinuing the live test drives, Ford went into production, with no substantial modifications of the vehicle.
  • Ford ignored its engineers’ recommendations to widen the track of the SUV and lower the center of gravity. Ford knew as early as 1981 that the Bronco II would roll over during safety tests. In the spring of 1982, Ford engineers recommended that only one change, a 3 to 4 inch widening of the vehicle track, would produce a "major improvement" in "roll characteristics." [Excerpt | Full document]. Ford ignored the safety and design recommendations of its own engineers and went into production after widening the SUV by just 4/10ths of an inch. According to internal Ford cost projections, it would have cost just $83 per vehicle to widen the vehicle and lower the center of gravity to achieve the desired "stability index" factor of 2.25. [Excerpt | Full document] | [Excerpt | Full document].
  • In anticipation of rollover litigation, Ford’s Office of General Counsel gathered more than 100 critical engineering documents before the production of the Bronco II and ordered engineers to "sanitize" them. Ultimately, many key documents disappeared. Realizing that the company’s own engineering documents showed that the Bronco II had a high propensity to roll over, injure and potentially kill a significant number of people who purchased it, Ford took the unprecedented step of gathering 113 specific documents critical to the defense in rollover litigation prior to the production of the first Bronco II [Excerpt | Full document] | [Excerpt | Full document]. Engineers were ordered to "sanitize" documents prior to collection; 53 of these documents have since disappeared from the Office of General Counsel [Excerpt | Full document] | [Excerpt | Full document].
  • These key documents were not disclosed to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) during the 1988-1990 Bronco II investigation. Ford said it “didn't notice” that NHTSA asked for Bronco II development documents [Excerpt | Full document].
  • When litigation began to heat up, Ford paid a former company engineer, David Bickerstaff, $5,000,000 over eight years to lie in a series of 30 rollover cases [Excerpt | Full document]. In June 1990, Bickerstaff sent Ford a letter where he offered to be paid $4,000 a day to "assist you [Ford] in preparing me [Bickerstaff] in Ford’s favor" [Excerpt ]. After he sent the letter, but before he was paid by Ford, Bickerstaff testified (truthfully) that as a Ford engineer he was concerned about the Bronco II’s propensity to roll over, as indicated by its low stability index [Excerpt | Full document]. After he was hired and paid by Ford, he testified that while working for Ford he was not concerned about the vehicle’s low stability index and that the stability index was nothing more than an "arbitrary number." [Excerpt | Full document]. | [Excerpt | Full document] Bickerstaff also helped Ford rig a videotape designed to convince juries that the Bronco II was not likely to roll over, by loading a Bronco II with 900 lbs of lead shot on the floorboards and seats in a manner that artificially lowered the center of gravity [View document]. In April 2001, a federal judge concluded that, as a matter of law, Ford and its witness Bickerstaff engaged in a conspiracy to commit fraud [Excerpt | Full document]. In June 2001, the South Carolina Court of Appeals decided that rollover victims could pursue a claim of "fraud upon the court" to re-open their case and seek a new trial because of Bickerstaff’s questionable arrangement with Ford [Excerpt | Full document]. A final decision on whether these victims will be able to seek a new trial is pending before the South Carolina Supreme Court.

In safety tests at speeds as slow as 30 miles per hour, the Bronco II repeatedly tipped up on its protective outriggers

The myth of safety versus fuel efficiency


The auto industry has a lot riding on the perceived safety of the SUV. More than just a sales point, the "safety" of SUVs has been an effective shield against increased federal fuel efficiency requirements.

Graphical Pull Quote Ford knew of the Bronco Two's defects

Because they are classified as light trucks — the Explorer, for example is built on Fords’ light truck chassis — SUVs are subject to special, lower fuel efficiency standards. This loophole in the law has provided a significant economic benefit to car companies because it has allowed them to avoid investments in fuel efficiency in their entire SUV line.

Automakers aggressively defend the enormous waste of fuel caused by the surge in SUV popularity by arguing that SUVs are safer than more fuel-efficient cars — and that making vehicles more fuel efficient would endanger owners and their families. This strategy has been a success. Since 1974, the auto industry and its allies in Congress have fought legislation proposing any improvement in SUV gas mileage standards.

The Bronco II, with modest changes, went on to become the Explorer.

The underlying message is clear: Auto companies care about your safety. Supporters of increased fuel economy do not.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

At least one company, Ford, cannot be trusted to tell the truth about the safety of the SUV. The company engaged in a conspiracy to cover up known hazards of the vehicle, "lost" or perhaps destroyed 53 documents directly relevant to the issue, and paid an expert $5 million to lie about SUV safety in 30 different lawsuits.

All of this leads us to wonder, if Ford is willing to produce a product it knows will injure and perhaps kill a certain percentage of customers simply to maintain profit margins, does the company really have driver safety at heart when its lobbyists aggressively fight easily-achievable standards for higher corporate average fuel economy?