Monday 8th January 2001
Donna Bailey (43), paralyzed from a Ford Explorer rollover crash, settled her suit with Ford and Firestone for a total in the range of $20-35 million along with the disclosure of internal memos and reports on tire safety and rollover issues.
240 deaths and 3,000 catastrophic injuries resulted from the combination of early generation Explorers and Firestone tires. The tire tread separated and the vehicle had an unusually high rate of rollover crash as a result. Both companies’ reputations were tarnished. This event led to a disruption in the 90-year-old Ford/Firestone partnership.
Rollover risk is inherently higher in truck-based vehicles, like the Explorer, than in ordinary passenger cars, as modification for bulky 4-wheel-drive hardware requires increases in height to avoid compromising ground clearance (raising the center of gravity), while a short wheelbase further reduces stability. The previous Bronco II had already been cited by Consumer Reports for rollover tendencies in turns.
The Explorer was cleared by the NHTSA as no more dangerous than any other truck when driven unsafely. It used the same tires as the Ford Ranger with a relatively low rating for high temperatures. Lowering tire pressure recommendations softened the ride further and improved emergency stability through increased traction, but increased the chances of overheating tires. A 1995 redesign with a new suspension slightly raised the Explorer’s center of gravity, but it was called inconsequential by a Ford spokesman. Memos by Ford engineers suggested lowering the engine height, but it would have increased the cost of the new design.
Explorer rollover rates, at the time of the controversy, were higher than any of its competitors. A rollover study analysis of national and Florida crash statistics revealed, the Ford Explorer, even when fitted with tires other than Firestone, had a higher rate of tire-related accidents than other sport utility vehicles. While Firestone turned out millions of sub-standard and potentially defective tires, and was the initial cause of loss of control many Ford Explorer Firestone tire tread separation rollovers, the blame shifted towards Ford for a defectively designed and unstable vehicle.
In May 2000, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) contacted Ford and Firestone about a higher than normal incidence of tire failures on Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers, and Mazda Navajos fitted with Firestone tires (later including Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series pickup trucks). The failures all involved tread separation, in which the outer tread carcass would delaminate and cause a rapid loss of tire pressure. Ford investigated and found that several models of 15 in (381 mm) Firestone tires (ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT) had higher failure rates, especially those made at Firestone’s Decatur, Illinois plant.
Ford recommended a tire inflation of only 26 pounds per square inch (179 kPa) likely contributing to the tread separation problem by causing the tires to operate at higher than normal temperatures.
Ford argued that Firestone was at fault, noting that the tires made by Firestone were very defective. Nevertheless, Ford subsequently recommended that front and rear tires should be inflated to 30 pounds per square inch (207 kPa) on all Explorer models and mailed a replacement tire pressure door sticker indicating the same to all registered owners.
Some have argued that poor driver reaction to tire blowout was a contributing factor. When a tire blew, the vehicle would experience a sudden sharp jerk, and many drivers reacted by counter-steering in an attempt to regain control. This action would cause a shift of the vehicle’s weight, resulting in a rollover especially at higher speeds (many reports of rollovers were of vehicles being driven at speeds of 70 mph (110 km/h) and above). In a test simulating dozens of tire blowouts, Larry Webster, a test-driver for Car & Driver magazine, was repeatedly able to bring a 1994 Explorer to a stop without incident from speeds of 70 mph (110 km/h). According to Forbes magazine, car experts and NHTSA claim that the vast majority of crash accidents and deaths are caused not by the vehicle, but by the driver, by road conditions or some combination of the two. Many vehicle injury attorneys dissent from this view.
In response to Firestone’s allegations of the Explorer’s design defects, NHTSA undertook a preliminary investigation and reported that further action was not required. Its conclusion was that the Explorer was no more prone to rollover than other SUVs given their high center of gravity. The subsequent introduction and proliferation of electronic stability control systems have essentially addressed and mitigated this shortcoming.
In May 2001, Ford announced it would replace 13 million Firestone tires fitted to Explorer vehicles