A Special Report: St. Petersbrg Times Deadly Combination: Ford, Firestone and Florida
 
 
Deadly Combination:
Ford, Firestone and Florida
Part One
  • Main story
  • Companies warming to settlements
  • At a glance
  • The players
  • Questions and Answers
  • A Timeline
  • What the companies say
  • Interview with Anita Kumar, the reporter
  • Graphic: How the tires failed
  • Graphic: When it’s too late
  • Graphic: By the numbers
  • Graphic: The human toll

  • Part Two
  • After the rollover
  • Suspect tires still on road
  • Driver side rear tires fail the most
  • About this report

  • Contact Anita Kumar:
  • Via e-mail: Click here
  • By phone: (727) 893-8472

    Further coverage
  • In first trial, Firestone settles lawsuit
  • Battered Firestone counting on local ties
  • Rollover crashes are hard to track
  • Ford leaves 2-door SUV unchanged
  • Recall may leave Firestone bankrupt
  • Government to expand tire recall
  • FHP says Firestone tire a factor in fatal crash
  • Two bay area lawsuits target Ford, Firestone
  • Ford agrees to test replacement tires
  • Ford recall: from bad to worse?
  • Ford's sub tires may fail more
  • Attention shifts from Firestone to Ford Explorer
  • Ford widens recall; companies cut ties
  • Ford recalls Wilderness AT Firestone tires
  • Dealerships brace for Ford tire recall
  • Tire decision not just for Ford owners
  • Voluntary tire recall rolling smoothly
  • Firestone cuts deal on bad tires
  • How the tires failed: An interactive graphic

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    Attention shifts from Firestone to Ford Explorer

    Many experts now say the rollover propensity of the SUV is more to blame for fatal accidents than faulty tires.

    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    This 1991 Explorer overturned on I-275 in St. Petersburg after another card slid into a barrier in front of it.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 17, 2001


    Robert Harold Miller was traveling north on Interstate 75 in Lee County on March 29 when a rear tire ripped apart. His 1996 sport utility vehicle spun out of control at 70 mph before resting on its side.

    Miller, 57, of Fort Myers was killed instantly.

    The vehicle was a Ford Explorer. But the tires were not Firestone.

    That accident, involving a Cooper tire, is one of the many that have come to light in recent weeks in which an Explorer flips after a tire -- not made by Firestone -- falls apart or after a driver swerves to avoid something in the road.

    The crashes, and the most recent data that has just been compiled and examined by Firestone and by the Safety Forum, a consumer safety group, have shifted much of the blame for deadly rollovers across the nation from Bridgestone/Firestone to Ford Motor Co. and the Explorer, the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle.

    Firestone, of course, has an ax to grind. The tiremaker has taken the majority of the blame in this crisis. But now, the company is fighting back, doing its own research to try to shift responsibility to Ford.

    It was Firestone, for example, that broke off its 100-year-old relationship with Ford last month just before Ford told owners of its light trucks and SUVs equipped with Firestone tires to take their vehicles back to dealerships for replacement tires.

    Industry experts such as Safety Forum, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety say that Ford is even more responsible than the tiremaker for the problem that the government estimates led to 174 deaths nationwide. They want the company to be punished, and they want the vehicle to be taken off the road.

    "At its core the Ford-Firestone tragedy was largely the responsibility of Ford Motor Co.," said Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Claybrook headed the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration during the Carter administration.

    Ford is facing some backlash from consumer groups who think the automaker didn't do enough to prevent the deaths and injuries caused in the hundreds of accidents worldwide. Forces rallying against Ford include:

    Consumer groups are asking Ford to notify Explorer owners of what the groups say are the vehicle's safety flaws.

    Firestone CEO John Lampe is requesting the federal government investigate the Explorer's safety concerns.

    Venezuela is considering banning Explorers sales after accidents there claimed 37 lives.

    Lawyers are asking a federal judge to force Ford to recall 4-million Explorers.

    Congress is examining Firestone's claim during hearings Tuesday that the Explorer suffers from a steering problem that leads to rollovers.

    Ford and Firestone have been feuding for months about which company is most responsible for the accidents. Though Firestone has taken the most heat, safety experts who are not involved in any litigation against either company, now say the automaker is ultimately responsible and must take further action.

    "The problem was created by Ford at the outset," said Ocala lawyer Bruce Kaster, a tire litigation expert who has several clients suing both Ford and Firestone. "Ford could have completely eliminated the problem. But it didn't."

    That's because the world's second-largest automaker's design produced a vehicle with a dangerous tendency to flip, say lawyers like Kaster and Tab Turner, a vehicle rollover litigation expert who also has clients suing both companies, and consumer experts like Safety Forum and Public Citizen. They also say Ford directed Firestone to design an unsafe tire and assured customers they could keep their tires underinflated and their vehicles overloaded.

    Ford officials have repeatedly denied that the Explorer has problems, describing the vehicle as one of the safest on the road. Ford says Firestone is pointing the finger at the Explorer -- one of the automaker's biggest moneymakers -- only to take attention away from defective tires.

    Ford and Firestone have recalled 27.4-million tires. And as a federal inquiry into those tires and more enters its second year, consumer groups have been crunching numbers and releasing statistics that back up the accusations against Ford.

    Groups such as Safety Forum report that Explorers are four times more likely to roll over than other SUVs, and Firestone estimates that in Florida, Explorers are twice as likely to flip as other SUVs in tire-related crashes.

    A four-month St. Petersburg Times analysis found that 41 people have been killed in Florida since 1997 in sport utility vehicles equipped with Firestone tires. No list of Explorer rollover accidents has been compiled nationwide, but the Times has found several accidents in Florida that involve Explorers but not Firestone tires.

    "Both companies are to blame," Claybrook and Ralph Hoar, who heads the Safety Forum, said in a joint statement. "But the ultimate responsibility lies with Ford because many keys decisions leading up to the tragic deaths were made by Ford."

    The focus shifts fo Ford

    Most SUVs are considered more likely to flip than passenger cars after sudden movements. But some auto experts, like Strategic Safety, another consumer safety group, and the Center for Auto Safety, say the Explorer's design makes it even more dangerous than other SUVs. That, combined with Ford's poor decisions about the tires' specifications, low inflation pressure and weight reduction, helped create the situation, they say.

    Ford officials say the Explorer is not the problem, despite being socked by a $25-million jury verdict in a recent Texas case involving a fatal rollover of a Bronco II, the predecessor to the Explorer.

    Ford's SUVs had rollover problems long before defective Firestone tires came into the picture. Consumer Reports criticized the Bronco II, the Explorer's predecessor, for being prone to flip. In the 1980s, Ford overhauled the Bronco and kept that history in mind as it designed the Explorer.

    In January, the federal government gave the Explorer just two stars on a new scale of from one to five that indicates the risk for a rollover. Two stars means the vehicle has a 30 percent to 40 percent chance of flipping in a single-vehicle crash.

    Experts say some characteristics that make the Explorer unstable are its top-heavy nature; a wheelbase that is too narrow; a high cargo floor; and suspension that slows braking and allows wheels to slip. Some of those elements are being redesigned in the 2002 Explorer, but Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said that has nothing to do with Firestone-related accidents.

    Firestone officials acknowledge that design and manufacturing mistakes led to some faulty tires but are frustrated by what they describe as Ford's lack of candor about the Explorer's safety problems.

    "Our analysis suggests that there is a significant safety concern with a substantial segment of Ford Explorers," Firestone's Lampe said. "Ford Explorers on non-Firestone tires continue to experience tread separations and tragic rollover accidents."

    An analysis of National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration data by Safety Forum shows that the wave of rollovers involving Explorers may have more to do with the vehicle than the tire. Tire failures on Explorers are four times more likely to produce catastrophic rollovers than on other SUVs, the analysis of more than 3,500 tire failures found.

    Recent studies by Firestone reflect a rollover problem with Explorers. The tiremaker said a review of Firestone claims data showed the Explorer is twice as likely to have a rollover in a tire-related crash than other SUVs.

    Dennis Guenther, an Ohio State University engineer who tested the Explorer and two other SUVs for Firestone, said a steering problem makes the Ford vehicle more difficult to control.

    "This is a vehicle problem, not a tire problem," Guenther said.

    Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the non-profit Center for Auto Safety said only about 10 percent of rollovers are tied to tire failures. Most, he said, occur after some other kind of sudden move.

    A sample of crashes in Florida shows that Explorers have been involved in accidents without Firestone tires or, sometimes, without any tire problem.

    One person was killed April 4 when an Explorer flipped on Interstate 4 in an accident with no tire failure. Another was killed May 16 when a non-Firestone rear tire on an Explorer fell apart on I-75 in Lee County. On May 27, an Explorer spun out of control when another car slid in front of it on I-275 in Pinellas County.

    "The Ford Explorer is uniquely dangerous," Kaster said. "It is a vehicle that is much more susceptible to catastrophic crashes. They can no longer say to people, "This is a safe vehicle."'

    This time, recall Explorers?

    Ford's lack of action regarding the Explorer has prompted Firestone and consumer advocates to search for other ways to get the vehicle recalled and the company punished.

    Lawyers representing hundreds of people killed or injured in Explorers asked the federal judge overseeing a class-action case against Ford and Firestone to recall 4-million Explorers.

    The unusual request seeks the recall of all Explorers made since its inception in 1990, excluding the 2002 model, and a refund or replacement vehicle for owners. A Ford spokesman called the request frivolous and said the Explorer "has been, and continues to be, one of the safest vehicles on the road."

    Federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker has yet to rule.

    Lampe, the Firestone CEO, went to Washington to lobby another arm of the government about his request. He met with the federal transportation secretary about possible Explorer steering problems and asked for an investigation by the federal agency that oversees the auto industry.

    "What we are concerned about is when something like this happens, a person should be able to pull over and not roll over," Lampe said after the meeting.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not responded but Congress has.

    The House Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to examine both companies' products and accusations. Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said it would examine Ford's analysis of Firestone tires and Firestone's claims of Ford steering problems.

    Meanwhile, two national consumer groups, Safety Forum and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, are lobbying the government, the media and Ford. They want the automaker to tell owners about the Explorer's tendency to roll, difficult handling after a tread separation, weak roof and lack of protection in a rollover crash.

    While the federal government, Firestone and consumer safety groups are turning up the heat on Ford in the United States, things aren't much better for Ford overseas. In Venezuela, attention also has shifted to the automaker.

    The Venezuela consumer protection agency asked that country's attorney general to seek a nationwide ban on Explorer sales and advertising, saying design flaws may have caused 50 accidents that claimed 37 lives since August.

    The agency, known as Indecu, first reported that both Ford and Firestone were responsible for the deaths but recently changed its stance. The attorney general's office and Venezuelan congress are looking into the accusations.

    As Ford and Firestone continue to fight, some people are starting to conclude that the two companies share the blame for their own flawed products, which together, formed a deadly combination.

    "You can't separate these two," Turner said. "I know everybody wants to. But this is just a unique combination of a bad tire on a bad vehicle."

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