On May 15, 2018, as she was driving back to her home in the High Desert of California’s Inland Empire region, Mary (not her real name) got into a car accident. It was a solo vehicle accident and her car rolled over 5 or 6 times. There were 7 people in her 2000 Mercury Mountaineer. 6 of them walked away. Her son was ejected and died at the scene. Mary ran screaming from her car into the traffic of the 15 freeway to pick her son’s lifeless body up and take him out of the way of oncoming cars. Several passersby helped get her other kids out of the truck. The Mountaineer, a carbon copy of the colossally unsafe Ford Explorer, was equipped with Firestone ATX tires. Specifically, the design that had a tendency towards tread separation.
Who even remembers the Firestone tire lawsuits? Firestone, in a way, was bailed out by 9/11 because the first of the recalls began in August of 2000, Ford recalled tires in May of 2001 and the lawsuits came largely thereafter. It is an otherwise forgotten moment in American history. The tread separations did not happen without a cause.
The Ford Explorer
Ford created the Explorer by putting the body of an SUV on the Ford Ranger chassis. It was cheap and easy. No new robots or parts. However, there was a problem that was immediately clear: the car rolled over a lot. The high center of gravity, due to the car’s tall design and narrow frame, meant that if it started tipping it didn’t stop. Per the 2000 article by the NY Times linked above, in the period between 1991 and 2000, the Ford Explorer was involved in 1200 rollover fatality accidents. Occupants were 2.3 times more likely to die in rollover crashes in an Explorer than any other car. They were even 2 times more likely to die than occupants of a Jeep Cherokee or Wrangler of the same era.
But Ford had a novel solution: decrease the recommended air pressure in the tires. Another solution would have been make the car wider but that would’ve required new machines, new parts, new robots, who knows what else. Very pricey. Can’t do it. So instead of 35psi on the tires, the recommendation was 26psi. Increased tire temperatures were the result.
Ford also took some of the material out of the roof of the Explorer trying to lower the center of gravity. As a result if the Explorer flipped and landed on its roof with a smashed windshield the entire roof would collapse.
Firestone ATX Tires
In January of 1994 Firestone entered into negotiations with its union at its Decatur, Illinois factory: the United Rubber Workers and the United Steel Workers. Firestone wanted truly draconian conditions from its workers:
The URW and USW rightly told Firestone to go fuck themselves. In April of 1994 the strike began. Within 8 months Firestone had hired 2300 scabs. The Wikipedia article on this refers to them euphemistically as “replacement workers.” They paid the scabs 30% less. Shortly after that the URW ran out of money and the strike was ended. The faultiest tires, almost all produced in Decatur, were made mostly by scab workers along side picket-crossing union workers.
A combination of poor workmanship and high temperatures would cause the treads to separate from the tire.
When Ford Explorers suffered tread separation, which they did at higher rates than other cars thanks to the lowered PSI creating higher temperatures—subsequently causing tread separations—the result was not a controllable accident. After the tread separated from the tire the car would pitch to one side and flip.
Attorneys became aware of the problem as early as 1996. That same year the great State of Arizona, not exactly a socialist mecca, told Firestone their tires were having tread separation problems. Firestone investigated and claimed that normal passenger tires were being overused and replaced the tires with heavier tires. Ford dealers in the Middle East began to notice the problems in 1997 and quietly began replacing tires in 1999 at a steep discount. In 1998 a researcher for State Farm Insurance, probably tired of paying out for fatal accidents, forwarded information relating to 21 tire-tread-separation accidents to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. A year later that same researcher forwarded 30 more accident cases to NHTSA.
Ford and Firestone began testing around that same time and issued a limited recall in Asian, Central American and Middle Eastern countries but did not notify NHTSA. Finally, a Houston TV station ran a segment about 30 deaths related to Firestone ATX tires and Ford Explorers in February of 2000. NHTSA finally began their investigation in March of that same year. Ford blamed Firestone’s shitty tires. Firestone blamed Ford’s shitty dangerous SUV. Two hundred and seventy one people died in the United States as a result of Firestone ATX tire tread separation accidents and forty six people died in Venezuela. Add one to that fatality count.
Mary is a resident of California’s High Desert region. It is a mostly economically depressed area where people live when they can’t afford to live in LA or San Bernardino. They mostly commute. Mary is no different than them: she has family in the LA area and goes back and forth. Mary is also poor. She bought the 2000 Mountaineer used. She bought the ATX tire used. She bought the ATX tire online from someone who did not warn her about the problems. She bought the Mountaineer from a similar person. Mary probably didn’t have much of a choice. She probably had an extremely limited amount of money and a problem to solve: no car and then bad tires. So she did what she had to do. And no one warned her.
Mary was driving down the freeway when the tread separated on one of her tires. Her car was pitched left into the guard rail. It subsequently rolled over several times. 6 occupants of the vehicle walked away but her son was ejected.
Mary’s son is dead. He died on impact with the pavement. Fatal accidents are common on the 15 freeway so it took some searching to even find a news write-up. There is only this story, in a local San Bernardino county paper. So, how do I know about Mary? She is, as of this writing, sitting in San Bernardino County jail, being prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter, a misdemeanor. She is being held on $50,000 bail. She has been in jail the better part of two months. The California Highway Patrol claims no one in the car was wearing a seat belt. Her trial ended this afternoon. Another lawyer from the public defender office where I work defended her ably. The jury is currently out.