SUVs Hidden History

In the 10-year period during which Ford SUVs outfitted with Firestone tires caused some 300 deaths in rollover accidents, more than 12,000 people died in SUV rollovers unrelated to tire failure. What did automakers and the federal government know about the risks posed by SUVs -- and what were they doing to protect consumers? Here's an overview of the SUV's hidden history, along with excerpts from FRONTLINE's study.

During the late 1970s, under Carter appointee Joan Claybrook NHTSA had pushed through new regulations and undertook aggressive investigations, including a famous investigation of the Ford Pinto. But in 1981-- enter Reagan with the promise of broad deregulation to help the ailing auto industry. NHTSA's budget was slashed and its staff was told that the agency's efforts would be directed toward repealing existing regulations rather than proposing new ones.

Rollovers Make National News Headlines

The issue of rollover first made national news in 1980 when CBS's 60 Minutes aired a report on early SUVs. As deaths and serious injuries mounted, so did lawsuits. Plaintiff attorneys discovered that Ford knew that its Bronco II prototypes were tipping onto two wheels at speeds as low as 20 miles per hour. But Ford's management declined to widen the vehicle as proposed by Ford engineers because it would have delayed "Job 1" (the vehicle's first date of production).

In 1986, Congressman Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) petitioned NHTSA to force changes in the basic design of SUVs. NHTSA engineer Anna Harwin was assigned to study the matter and make a recommendation. Her analysis showed "a pronounced and consistent pattern" between a vehicle's height and width and its propensity to roll over.

Wirth's petition, backed by NHTSA research, and all five NHTSA departments recommended that the agency consider regulation. But NHTSA administrator Diane Steed, the Reagan political appointee who headed the agency, denied the Wirth petition.

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