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Where do millions of Ford Explorer owners turn for answers about their vehicles' safety? Not Ford Motor Co., which has delayed or withheld crucial information about its best-selling sport utility vehicle. Not Congress, which put on a showy hearing about the Explorer's propensity for deadly rollovers that settled nothing. Not the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has failed to lived up to its mandate to protect the public.
While the manufacturers, politicians and regulators dither, the deadly combination of Ford Explorer and Firestone tires has been blamed for at least 203 American deaths, more than 30 in Florida. Even the supposed fix of replacing tires is now under suspicion. It is time for consumers to get some straight answers.
The truth, however, won't be coming from Ford or Firestone. The pioneering companies enjoyed one of the longest lived corporate partnerships, nearly 100 years, but when the split came it was quick and ugly. In May, nine months after Firestone announced a recall of 6.5-million tires used mostly on the Explorer, the tire company ended all business ties with Ford. The next day, Ford said it would replace up to 13-million more Firestone tires. "This is a tire issue and only a tire issue," said Ford CEO Jacques Nasser. Not so, said Firestone CEO John Lampe: "Something about the Explorer must account for the high number of tire failures and subsequent rollover accidents."
In fact, both companies knew for some time that disintegrating tires and Explorer rollovers were a problem. Two years before the first U.S. tire recall, they had discussed the same safety issues in the Middle East, Asia and South America. Ford decided to replace Explorer tires in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela a year earlier than it took action in the United States. Meanwhile, Americans were dying in similar accidents at home.
Before the first Explorer went on sale in 1990, Ford engineers recommended design changes after the vehicle rolled over in tests, according to Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and former NHTSA director. Rather than changing the SUV's suspension or widening its track, Ford reduced the recommended tire pressure from 35 psi to 26 psi, later considered a factor in tire tread separation. When a tire failure caused the Explorer to roll, the roof often collapsed, injuring or killing the occupants.
Ford still will not admit to defects in the Explorer, even though the company has redesigned the 4-door model for 2002 and boasts of "significant improvements in power, package, suspension and safety." The 2-door Explorer Sport has not been similarly redesigned, however.
Congress had a chance to squeeze some truth out of both companies when their CEOs testified before a House committee last week. Instead, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., further clouded the safety issues. Referring to information apparently only he had, Tauzin claimed that seven of the replacement tires approved by Ford have higher failure rates than the original Firestone tires. Pressed to name the defective tires, however, Tauzin grudgingly revealed only two -- Goodyear Wrangler HT and the General Grabber AP XL. That left millions of Explorer owners once again uncertain about their vehicle's safety.
There is a way for Congress to protect the American public from unsafe cars and trucks: Force the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do its job.
When NHTSA comes up for reauthorization in Congress this year, lawmakers should require the agency to create and enforce new rules for rollover safety. They should insist on a minimum rollover standard that SUVs would have to meet, and those that surpassed the rollover standard could be rewarded with superior ratings. Also, Congress should call for crashworthiness improvements that would give passengers a better chance to survive a rollover. The improvements should include stronger roofs and glass, sturdier seats and updated seat belts. And Congress should give NHTSA the necessary funds to carry out those mandates.
In the past, the agency has resisted establishing a rollover standard, saying it would punish SUVs because their high center of gravity makes them inherently unstable. That is a poor argument for failing to protect the public from injury and death.
"It is clear that even in a rollover crash, people do not have to die," Claybrook, of Public Citizen, said in recent testimony to Congress. "Given the types of engineering safeguards that have been available for many years to protect vehicle occupants during a crash, it is barbaric to design a vehicle that due to poor handling is prone to roll over and yet is also likely to kill its occupants once it does."
American drivers need someone to act before more blood is needlessly spilled on our highways. Why is Congress waiting?
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