Rollover crashes are hard to track
By ANITA KUMAR
© St. Petersburg Times,
When the Ford-Firestone scandal surfaced last year, state investigators eager to launch an investigation in Florida tried to gather accident statistics.
It wasn't easy.
Florida accident reports don't include the crucial data about sport utility vehicles and tires that is needed to understand the deadly rollover crashes.
Attorney General's Office investigators weren't able to determine how much of a problem they had on their hands because they couldn't calculate the number of people who were victims of a Firestone tire falling apart or a Ford SUV rolling over.
"No one anticipated this would happen," said Les Garringer, who heads the inquiry for the Attorney General's Office. "So we couldn't get the detailed information we wanted."
Accident reports do not include a place to cite the brand name or type of tire -- such as the suspect Firestone Wilderness ATs -- and whether a vehicle is an SUV as opposed to a truck, van or station wagon.
The federal agency that oversees the auto industry estimates 203 people died and 700 more were injured in the United States in these accidents. The number of fatal crashes is likely higher, though, since states such as Florida have not accurately kept track.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis that included calls to victims or their attorneys found that 44 people have been killed and 230 more injured in Florida since 1997 in SUVs equipped with Firestone tires. Those numbers represent considerably more fatalities and injuries than the federal government has compiled in its data.
The lack of accurate information did not halt the inquiry, though the Attorney General's Office was forced to use estimated numbers of accidents based on generalizations about how many Explorers are equipped with Firestone tires.
Attorney General Bob Butterworth said in early May that his office planned to sue both companies on behalf of all Floridians for engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices. Other states will decide whether to sue in their courts.
"We're going forward," Butterworth said recently while in St. Petersburg. "We're the lead state. We're gathering information and filing papers. ... The office is trying to get the message out for people to please get rid of their Firestone tires."
Garringer, along with four other attorneys and two investigators, will finish examining the more than 1-million Ford and Firestone documents and questioning witnesses before a suit is filed.
Officials with the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have talked about changing the forms for crash reports to get a better handle on any future problems -- like this one -- but have decided not to.
"The question came up and it was suggested that it be done," said Ray Boetsh, the state's traffic system administrator. "But we determined that it would be too difficult."
That's partly because state officials worry that the 20,000 law enforcement officers from 300 agencies across Florida would not be consistent when filling out the forms and that they would have to spend even more time than they already do on paperwork. "The last thing some trooper wants to do is spend six hours filling out a report," Garringer said.
The state modified the accident report forms this year to include driver distraction, a new category that includes cell phone use, and still leaves the door open for SUV and tire changes in the future.
"I believe that probably down the road, as sensitive as it is, we would eventually make some changes," Boetsh said.
- Times staff writer Christina Jewett contributed to this report.
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