Thousands of Ford Explorer occupants have been severely injured or killed in rollover accidents due to poorly designed Ford Explorers equipped with defective Firestone tires. Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone covered-up knowledge of deadly product defects for over ten years.
A new law, the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, was passed in recognition of the manufacturers' failure to divulge the deadly SUV/tire combination. Although both Ford and Firestone are to blame for the multitude of deaths, the root problems begin and end with Ford Motor Company.
Thousands of people have suffered injury and death due to the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire combination. According to an August 27, 2001 report, the federal government has linked 203 deaths and over 700 injured occupants, in the United States alone, to the poorly designed Ford Explorer and its defective Firestone tires (1).
The Icfai Center for Management Research estimates that the SUV/tire combination is responsible for over 250 deaths and more than 3,000 injuries in the United States (2).
According to the information collected by the National Highway Traffic Association (NHTSA), approximately 85 percent of the deaths caused by the Ford/Firestone defects occurred in the southern-most regions of the United States.
The following are the number of deaths per state caused by the SUV/tire combination according to an April 2001 report by Public Citizen (3).
Ford Motor Company approved the design of the Firestone P235/75R15 ATX tire on June 11, 1987 (4). It was specifically designed for use on the Ford Explorer and was used as original equipment when the vehicle was introduced in 1990.
Bridgestone/Firestone began mass-producing the 15-inch ATX tire in 1990. The tire was redesigned in 1995 and 1996 when it was renamed the ATX II and the Wilderness AT (5).
The Ford Explorer was first introduced in March of 1990 as the successor of the Bronco II. The Bronco II was known as being prone to rollover collisions; however Ford Motor Company designed the Explorer with the same frame and similar wheelbase-to-height ratio as the Bronco II.
Ford knew that the Explorer would continue the same rollover problems of the Bronco II; however it was much more cost effective to continue the production of the Explorer with the same rollover prone frame and body style than to make any changes.
The stability problems of the Ford Explorer were known early and were well documented. Ford's own engineers recommended changes to the Explorer's design numerous times to counteract the vehicles propensity to rollover. The most important recommendations included: changes to the Explorer's suspension, increasing its tract width, lowering its center of gravity and using smaller tires. The face of their own engineers, Ford did not make changes the design of the Explorer. Instead, Ford management decided to remove air from the tires, lowering the recommended pounds per square inch (psi) to 26. Firestone recommended a tire pressure of 30 psi, with a maximum 35 psi.
Despite the change in tire pressure, the Ford Explorer continued to be much more prone to rollovers than other vehicles on the road. Leon Robertson, a retired Yale University epidemiologist, conducted a study on vehicle occupant deaths in tire-related accidents using federal data from 1990 to 1997.
According to this study, 91 percent of the Ford Explorer occupants that died in tire-related accidents involved rollovers. However, only 28 percent of tire-related deaths in cars involved rollovers (6).
Ford's decision to deflate the tires increased the Explorers rolling resistance (a positive consequence), however it also produced a lower fuel economy (a negative consequence). In order to improve the Explorer's fuel economy without decreasing its rolling resistance, Ford ordered Firestone to decrease the weight of the tires. In 1994, the tires' weight was reduced by about 10 percent.
According to Public Citizen, the weight decrease was achieved by reducing the gauge of various internal components, modifying the sub tread compound, using a lightweight belt package, and making specific modifications to the sidewall of the tire (7). The newly designed tire was lighter and subsequently less durable, therefore making it more susceptible to tread separations.
Tire-tread separations resulting in rollover collisions proved to be a problem almost immediately after the Ford Explorer was introduced in 1990. According to Public Citizen, at least 5 lawsuits concerning the SUV/tire combination were filed before 1993, and at least 15 lawsuits were filed by the end of 1996.
Consumers and dealers from the United States and foreign countries filed thousands of complaints. By September 19, 2000, there were 2,200 complaints involving 103 deaths and more than 400 injuries.
Many state agencies, such as law enforcement, national park services and wildlife protection agencies, use the Ford Explorer as their company vehicles. By 1996, several state agencies began having major problems with tread separations of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers.
On June 20, 1996, Lowell Whitaker, Arizona Game and Fish Department manager, sent a memo to his regional supervisor describing two tire "blow out" of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. Whitaker also informs that the Department of Public Safety had endured a series of collisions caused by tread separations of Firestone tires (8).
The problem of tread separation was noticed much earlier in other countries. By 1997, Ford dealers in the Middle East began to report similar tread separation problems on the Explorers. An internal Ford memo from Carlos Mazzorin (Ford's group vice president, Asia Pacific Operations, South American Operations and global purchasing) dated August 27, 1999 states: "Issue description: While driving the vehicle at high speeds, for prolonged periods of time, the tire tread separated (belt edge separation) from the main carcass of the tire. 19 rollovers attributed to this issue have occurred in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar combined. Several fatalities have resulted. The issue has also occurred in Venezuela, and fatalities have also resulted in that market."
By 1999, Ford replaced Firestone tires on 46,912 of its SUVs in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia and Colombia9. However, Ford and Firestone failed to inform U.S. authorities and consumers of the problems.
Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone knew about the instability problems of Ford Explorers and Firestone tire tread separations long before the problems gained public attention.
On February 7, 2000, Houston television station KHOU aired a report that spotlighted the tread separation problems of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. The CBS affiliate station reported the story of numerous deaths and lawsuits caused by Firestone tread separations and Ford Explorer rollovers. The station's report prompted several dozen people in Texas to report similar problems to authorities.
Almost immediately following the KHOU report, NHTSA began studying the problem of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. On March 6, 2000, NHTSA began a preliminary investigation after receiving dozens of inquiries and complaints. By May 2, 2000, the agency launched a formal investigation into 47 million Firestone ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness tires. NHTSA found two major problems with Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone in their investigation.
The agency found that there was an unusually high failure rate of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and that Ford and Firestone withheld pertinent information from the public and from authorities regarding the deadly SUV/tire combination.
Although Ford and Firestone began replacing Firestone tires outside the United States as far back as 1998, the manufacturers did not conduct recalls in the U.S. until August 2000. NHTSA publicly announced its investigation of 46 deaths related to the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire combination on August 7, 2000.
A couple of days later, on August 9, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone announced a voluntary recall of 6.5 million 15" ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires. Almost a year later, in May 2001, Ford announced that it was recalling all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires that remained on its vehicles.
On November 1, 2000, NHTSA enacted the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act. The TREAD Act was passed in recognition of Ford and Firestone's failure to divulge the deadly SUV/tire combination to United States authorities.
The new Act gives NHTSA authority to require motor vehicle and vehicle equipment manufacturers to provide information about possible defects in the United States or in foreign countries. The idea is to ensure that NHTSA receives appropriate data, related to foreign recall actions and internal company information on claims and lawsuits related to defects, in a timely fashion.
Although both Ford and Firestone are to blame, Ford Motor Company is primarily responsible for the multitude of deaths. Ford was behind most of the key decisions that resulted in such a dangerous SUV/tire combination. The Ford Explorer is defectively designed. It has an inexcusably high rollover propensity that Ford Motor Company has known about since the vehicles introduction in 1990. The tread problems of the Firestone tires were primarily due to the tires performance specifications demanded by Ford.
The Ford Explorer is extremely rollover prone due to a high center of gravity and narrow wheelbase. In order to counteract this deadly problem, Ford removed air from the tires to increase the Explorer's rolling resistance. However, the lower tire pressure resulted in a lower fuel economy. Then, in an attempt to improve fuel economy, Ford ordered that Firestone lower the weight of the tires. However, the removal of weight resulted in a weaker and less durable tire making it more susceptible to tread separations.
The instability of the Ford Explorer and the tire tread separation of Bridgestone/Firestone tires was known within the automobile industry long before any recalls were ever carried out. Hundreds of injuries and deaths have occurred due to the deadly SUV/tire combination.
The design and subsequent re-design of the Firestone tire was Ford's attempt to use a cost effective cosmetic remedy to fix a serious defectively designed vehicle. Ford chose to address the Explorer's stability problems by altering the tire specifications instead of actually resolving the root problem - the defective design of the Ford Explorer.
John Bisnar is a partner at Newport Beach Personal Injury Law Firm Bisnar Chase. The Bisnar Chase law firm has dedicated their practice to victims of serious injuries due to defective products, negligence and malpractice.