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2000 Ford Explorer

Explorer roof called too weak

California firm complains to feds about rollover risk in '99-'01 models; Ford says SUV is safe.

By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Ford Explorer roof strength


SAFE Research, a California engineering firm, has asked the federal government to investigate whether the 1999-2001 Ford Explorer SUV meets federal safety standard 216, which mandates a minimum level of roof strength.

Ford's statement

Ford Motor Co. says its vehicles meet the safety standard and SAFE's analysis is flawed.

Potential penalty

Automakers that do not comply with the safety standard, the penalty would be $1,100 to $5,000 per violation, up to a maximum of $925,000 to $15 million. Ford would also have to recall, replace or buy back the vehicles in question.

Source: Detroit News research

WASHINGTON -- Many of Ford Motor Co.'s best-selling Explorer SUVs from the 1999 to 2001 model years likely do not meet a crucial safety requirement intended to protect passengers in rollover crashes, a safety engineering firm claimed in a petition filed with the federal government.

Safety Analysis and Forensic Engineering, which performs research for plaintiffs suing automakers, says internal Ford documents show that a substantial number of 1999 to 2001 Explorers likely do not comply with the federal vehicle roof strength standard.

The firm is asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate. NHTSA has placed the petition and Ford documents collected by SAFE Research in its public docket and plans to respond within 120 days.

"This situation exposes owners of these vehicles to increased risk of serious injury in rollovers," said Stephen Forrest, senior engineer and principal with SAFE Research.

Ford disputes the claims. It said all of its vehicles meet or exceed federal safety standards and SAFE Research misinterpreted company documents and drew conclusions about tests run on an experimental vehicle that was substantially different from the SUVs on the road.

"Members of SAFE primarily earn their living by working for plaintiff attorneys, and much of their data is derived from our own testing of a prototype vehicle that was never sold to the public," said Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis.

The dispute provides a window into the often murky world of big-time auto litigation, where internal documents unearthed during the course of trials are examined and interpreted by both sides.

The latest assertions may only intensify the growing debate over vehicle roof strength. Ford faces hundreds of lawsuits stemming from Explorer rollovers. And the company already has been hit with several multimillion-dollar jury verdicts in cases in which plaintiffs alleged the Explorer's roof is too weak.

The documents cited by SAFE Research were introduced as evidence in a trial in Texas in October stemming from an Explorer rollover accident that killed two teenagers. Forrest testified about the documents filed with NHTSA for the plaintiffs. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount after Forrest testified.

SAFE Research contends Ford made design changes over the years that weakened the roof of the Explorer. Ford made an exception to an internal company standard to build roofs 25 percent stronger than the federal roof strength minimum, the firm said.

In 1999, years after Ford had certified that its third-generation Explorer met federal safety standards, engineers discovered the roof was weaker than previously thought -- either below the federal standard or so close to it that some Explorers likely were manufactured below the minimum because of normal variation, according to SAFE Research.

Ford completely redesigned the Explorer for the 2002 model year and beyond.

SAFE Research specializes in roof strength issues, and its engineers have testified on behalf of plaintiffs in numerous rollover trials, many of which have involved Ford. Forrest trained at the General Motors Technical Institute in Flint.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the agency usually responds to petitions within 120 days and would offer no comment on the merits of the charges by SAFE Research. "Our compliance people have received it," Tyson said. "We are evaluating it."

If NHTSA finds a vehicle in noncompliance with federal law, the manufacturer is subject to fines and mandatory recalls.

The Ford Explorer has withstood challenges to its safety. The automaker endured years of public relations battering over the Explorer's safety record during the Firestone tire recall.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and numerous safety groups charged the SUV rolled over too easily, adding to the number of crashes, deaths and injuries. NHTSA later found no evidence that the vehicle rolled over more frequently than other comparable SUVs.

In its petition to NHTSA, SAFE Research's charge does not pertain to the Explorer's stability. Rather, the firm contends the 1999 to 2001 Explorer likely does not meet federal safety standard 216, which stipulates that vehicle roofs must withstand a force equal to at least 1.5 times the vehicle's unloaded weight.

Safety advocates have long complained that safety standard 216 is a toothless law that hasn't been updated since 1971. NHTSA has proposed upgrading the 216 test to require a 2.5 strength-to-weight minimum.

A trail of documents

Ford company documents attached to SAFE Research's petition show the automaker relied on the roof-strength tests of an earlier-generation Explorer to certify the 1999 model year. A series of five tests were conducted between Jan. 14, 1993, and March 22, 1995. The Explorer appeared to pass the roof-strength requirement in those tests, averaging a 1.69 strength-to-weight ratio. Ford had an internal roof-strength standard of 1.875, or 25 percent stronger than the federal minimum.

Ford made an exception for the Explorer, as a memo dated March 1992 explains. The memo was called a "Regulatory Engineering Design Standard Deviation." The document outlines that a strength-to-weight ratio of 1.63 would be sufficient for the Explorer, since enough roof-crush tests had been conducted to ensure, within the expected 9 percent testing variation, the SUVs would still exceed the federal minimum of 1.5.In May 1999, while studying whether to change the way the windshield adheres to the body frame, Ford engineer R.G. Roose produced a report titled "1999 Explorer Roof Crush Certification (FMVSS 216)." The test yielded a strength-to-weight ratio of 1.48 with a maximum unloaded-vehicle weight of 4,700 pounds, the same weight used in the 1993 and 1995 certification tests.

But the 4,700-pound weight is crossed out and a weight of 4,600 pounds is used instead, yielding a ratio of 1.52 -- barely over the federal minimum.

"After the test, the requestor indicated the wrong maximum weight was used," the test report notes.

A second roof-crush test, conducted on Oct. 22, 1999, yielded similar results.

Forrest argued that whether the 4,600-pound or 4,700-pound vehicle weight is used, many Explorers wouldn't meet the standards. That's because normal variation from vehicle to vehicle means a portion of the SUVs sold during that time period would fall below that standard.

The debate ultimately comes down to this: Ford says the roof tests were done on an experimental vehicle that never hit the road; SAFE Research says the documents show that Ford's engineers looked at the issue of whether the modified windshield explained the drop in roof strength and concluded it didn't.

Forrest said the two 1999 tests are the only known instances where Ford conducted a roof-crush test on that version of the Explorer.

"SAFE has analyzed sufficient evidence to suggest that Ford has produced Explorer vehicles to the public that do not pass [safety standard] 216, thus violating federal law," the petition reads.

Ford officials said all of its compliance tests have demonstrated that the 1999 to 2001 Explorer met safety standard 216. The company declined to provide The Detroit News with test reports to support the contention.

Furthermore, Ford said an independent test firm conducted three tests on Explorers and showed that the SUV met standard 216. Forrest said those tests were done specifically for litigation and do not hold as much weight as tests run by Ford engineers. Ford said NHTSA has conducted roof strength compliance tests on two different generations of the Explorer — model years 1996 and 2002 — and found them to be in compliance.

“Ford Motor Co. is confident that if NHTSA tested the 1999 through 2001 Explorers, it would reach the same conclusion,” Ford spokesman Jarvis said.

Under federal law, manufacturers must certify that their vehicles meet minimum federal safety standards before they can be sold in the United States. Automakers test the vehicles themselves to ensure they comply with the dozens of regulatory requirements. The companies certify their vehicles meet federal standards by placing a label inside the door jamb.

For vehicles that were manufactured before Nov. 1, 2000, the penalty for noncompliance was $1,100 per violation, up to a maximum of $925,000. After the Tread Act was signed into law on that date, the penalties increased to $5,000 per vehicle, up to a maximum of $15 million.

Under the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act, automakers can be required to recall, replace or buy back any vehicles that are not in compliance.

Other safety experts who have reviewed SAFE Research's filing also are raising questions.

"There's ample evidence to question whether Ford legitimately certified these vehicles," said Carl Nash, a former NHTSA official who now works for XPrts LLC, a research firm in Santa Barbara, Calif., that frequently testifies against automakers in roof-crush cases.

Experts weigh in

Ben Parr, a retired director of automotive research for State Farm Insurance Co. who has been studying the roof strength issue for the last year, reviewed the SAFE Research petition. Parr also has testified against automakers in roof-crush cases.

Before his career at State Farm, Parr was an engineering manager at GM. Parr said when he worked with sheet metal, the rule of thumb was a 15 percent margin of error to provide for adequate safety.

"If you are down to 3 percent, 4 percent, 5 percent, you don't have enough," Parr said. "There goes your cushion."

Campbell Laird, a professor of materials science engineering at the University of Pennsylvania with 45 years of professional experience, reviewed the SAFE Research petition at the request of The Detroit News. Laird has been an observer of the federal work on roof-strength regulations and weighed in with formal comments as NHTSA was preparing to revise safety standard 216.

Laird said SAFE had presented enough evidence to warrant an investigation.

"I find it very plausible," Laird said. "Ford did not meet its own internal standards."

Ford wages legal battle

The charges from SAFE Research are the latest in a series of revelations that have emerged from Ford documents used as evidence in lawsuits. In March, a Jacksonville, Fla., trial involving a 2000 Ford Explorer that rolled over resulted in a $10.2 million verdict for the family of Claire Duncan, a 26-year-old engineer who died from a skull fracture.

Documents introduced in that trial showed that Ford has twice reduced the roof strength of the Explorer as it has redesigned the vehicle. In addition, documents and videos of tests conducted by Ford's Volvo subsidiary called into question Ford's contention that stronger roofs do not provide any meaningful protection against injury.

The Volvo documents showed that the Swedish carmaker, which is considered the industry leader in safety technology, made strenuous efforts to strengthen the roof of its XC-90 SUV to reduce the likelihood of injury in rollover crashes.

Ford has been waging a legal battle to keep its documents out of the public realm.

Normally, documents used as evidence in a jury trial become part of public record. But Ford is arguing in courts in Jacksonville, Fla., and Corpus Christi and Brownsville, Texas, to seal evidence on the grounds it would reveal trade secrets.

Some documents, including Volvo test reports and videos, were placed in NHTSA's public docket earlier this year. NHTSA removed them after Ford objected.
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