Tire-Related Explorer Rollover Deaths Continue to Climb

Reprinted from The Safety Record, V5, I6; Nov/Dec. 2008

CROWNSVILLE, MD. – Ford may have won the public relations battle in 2000, when the blame for 173 Explorer rollover deaths fell on Bridgestone-Firestone’s Wilderness ATX tires, but the motoring public has turned out to be the real loser. According to a new analysis, after a brief dip, the number of Explorer rollover deaths involving a tire failure has risen to significantly higher levels than before the tires were recalled.

The report, Ford Explorers in Fatal, Tire-related Crashes: Before and After the Firestone Recall, written by Randy and Alice Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, of Crownsville, Maryland, found a total of 501 such deaths, with more than 65 percent occurring after the recalls were first announced. The Whitfields’ analysis, an updated version of a 2006 study by the firm, found a short-term decrease in tire-related rollover deaths for the two years immediately following the highly publicized recalls and replacement programs. But after 2002, the death toll began to rise again.

The analysis concludes that “the recalls and replacement campaigns by Ford and Firestone have not achieved long-term effectiveness in eliminating tire-related deaths in the Ford Explorer fleet. Additional efforts must be made to avoid the placement of problematic tires on these vehicles. Also, it is imperative to investigate effective countermeasures addressed to the vehicles’ performance on higher speed roadways to avoid loss of control when a tire failure does occur.”

Although the Ford Explorer was dethroned as the king of the American SUV market a few years ago, it is still among the top-ten sellers. And despite questions that have been raised about the Explorer’s stability and roof strength and the loss of civil lawsuits – including a class action – the popular SUV largely weathered the controversy that erupted in August 2000, when Firestone announced it was recalling 14.4 million Wilderness ATs linked to rollover deaths.

In testimony to Congress, Ford’s then-CEO, Mr. Jacques Nasser asserted: “The data tell us that the problem is with the tires and not the vehicle.”

And in 2002, NHTSA denied a request by Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. to open a safety defect investigation into the Explorer’s oversteer characteristics following a tread separation of a rear tire.

“The data does not support Firestone’s contention that Explorers stand out from other SUVs with respect to its handling characteristics following a tread separation,” said then-NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge in a news release.

But the analysis performed by Quality Control Systems calls into question NHTSA’s continuing inaction.

During the post-recall period, April 1, 2002 through December 31, 2007, there were 285 deaths in 232 reported, tire-related, Ford Explorer crashes recorded in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). This total exceeded that for all other comparison utility vehicles combined, which accounted for 275 tire-related deaths during this period.

The Whitfields examined data about fatal motor vehicle crashes contained within FARS from 1990-2007 to study model year 1991-2008 utility vehicles. The dataset of 24,494 vehicles included two- and four-door, two-, four-, and all-wheel drive versions of Ford Explorers, Lincoln Aviators, Mercury Mountaineers, and Mazda Navajos. The comparison vehicles included all mid-sized and some small utility vehicles in which an occupant was killed.

What the analysis cannot explain is the reason for the rise in these deaths. “The takeaway from this seems to be that all roads point back to a vehicle related issue” says Sean Kane of SRS.

According to the report: “These data should be interpreted with caution. Both false reports of tire problems as well as false omissions of tire problems are possible in FARS. Nevertheless, the data about tire failures in FARS has been shown to be of sufficient quality to be valuable as a surveillance tool for tire-related safety defects and could have helped to avoid the scandal that occurred in 2000.”

The QCS analysis demonstrates that fatal, tire related Explorer rollovers are a special problem on high-speed roadways. This association was true even for Explorers that were never outfitted with Firestone tires.

The report concludes that countermeasures to avoid a loss-of-vehicle-control event when a tire failure occurs on the Explorer must be found, because the tire recalls and replacement campaigns by Ford and Firestone have not resulted in long-term reductions in tire-related deaths in the Ford Explorer fleet.

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. 2008