By late 2001, rollovers of Ford Explorers triggered by blowouts of Firestone tires had claimed 271 lives in the U.S. and dozens more overseas. Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone pointed fingers at each other. Experts said bad tires on a top heavy SUV made a deadly combination.
The official verdict blamed the tires. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration denied a request from Bridgestone/Firestone for a defect investigation of the Explorer, saying crash data did not distinguish it from other SUVs. In August 2000, the companies began replacing millions of tires on Explorers and their twins -- Mercury Mountaineers and Mazda Navajos. The furor subsided, and politicians, regulators and the news media moved on.
But interviews and documents reviewed by FairWarning show that NHTSA took a renewed interest in the Explorer in 2006. The agency quietly sought details of rollovers that had claimed about 300 lives. No action resulted, and the review was not disclosed to the public.
The inquiry was conducted under the "early warning" law passed by Congress in 2000 amid charges that Ford and Firestone had withheld information on deadly crashes. The law requires vehicle makers to submit quarterly reports to NHTSA listing crashes that led to claims of vehicle defects. NHTSA can then decide whether to request additional data.
In a letter to Ford on March 7, 2006, NHTSA sought additional details of some 235 fatal Explorer rollovers that Ford had listed in its quarterly reports from mid-2003 through 2005. Tire failure had been cited in some of the crashes; in other cases the role of tires was unknown. The Washington-based Center for Auto Safety obtained the NHTSA letter under the Freedom of Information Act and provided a copy to FairWarning.
Ford submitted information on the rollovers later that month, records show. A review by FairWarning of crash lists on NHTSA's Early Warning Reporting Web site shows 304 people died in the 235 crashes.
Most of the incidents occurred in the U.S., but some were in Venezuela, Mexico and other Latin American countries. The U.S. crashes were concentrated in the hottest months in warm weather states such as Texas and Georgia, consistent with the fact that heat can weaken tires and make them more susceptible to blowouts.
What NHTSA did next is something of a mystery. Agency officials last week declined to be interviewed and would not discuss their review of the Ford information.
But in a statement to FairWarning, they said while data in early warning reports "is useful for identifying a possible defect," lists of injury claims are not, in themselves, evidence of a defect. "In this case, NHTSA did not find a basis for opening an investigation," the statement said.
"Whatever NHTSA did, they did behind closed doors," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Maybe they have a legitimate reason" for not conducting a full investigation, "and maybe they don't," he said. "But right now the American public doesn't know whether this call was shaded in favor of Ford or not."
Meanwhile, a statistical analysis showing that fatalities since the recall have outnumbered deaths before suggests the tire change may have been a short-term fix.
The report comes from statisticians Randy and Alice Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corp., a Maryland firm that does research for plaintiff lawyers and other clients. They found that 340 people died in Explorer rollovers linked to tire failures from April 2002, the end of the tire replacement program, through 2008. The total does not include an unknown number of additional deaths in 2009 and 2010. The figures are based on records in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a federal government database, the Whitfields say.
According to their analysis, tire-related rollover fatalities spiked at 81 in 2000, when the scandal broke. In 2002, with Explorers riding on millions of new tires, the death toll fell to 25. But it rose to 49 fatalities in 2003 and has averaged 54 deaths per year since.
Gauging the risks of different vehicles means knowing such things as how many of each model are on the road and how many miles they are driven. A large number of crashes might only mean that a vehicle is popular, not that there's something wrong with it. With their high center of gravity and narrow track width, SUVs generally are less stable than passenger cars and might be harder to control in critical situations, such as when a tire shreds.
Ford said in a statement that years of field data and testing "confirm the safety of Explorers." The company did not dispute the data cited by Quality Control Systems, but said that its involvement with "personal injury lawyers who sue car companies" means its report "should be viewed with bias."
Randy Whitfield acknowledged that his research doesn't prove that Explorers are more dangerous than other vehicles. He also said that after the Ford-Firestone debacle, it's possible that police became more cognizant of tire failures, leading to more reports of tire involvement in deaths recorded in FARS.
But he said the data does suggest that tires that were brand new in 2000 and 2001 might now be failing at an increased rate. He said a higher percentage of fatal Explorer rollovers appear to involve tire failure than for other mid-size SUVs, and the difference seems most pronounced at speeds greater than 55 mph.
These crashes "seem to cluster in the summertime and the hotter areas," he said. With summer on the way, Whitfield said, it might be advisable for Explorer owners to check the age and condition of their tires and make a habit of driving at moderate speeds.
NHTSA declined to comment on the Whitfields' research. But in its statement the agency said "we have observed that many vehicle models with lower ...stability factors -- including vans and many SUVs -- are particularly sensitive to rollover crashes and that tire and suspension conditions, vehicle speed and high temperatures are contributing factors to these incidents."