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A few months ago Car and Driver magazine tried to roll a '94 Ford Explorer by deliberately blowing out the left rear tire. It couldn't be done, not at 30 mph (48 km/h), and not at 70 mph (112 km/h). During the last blowout run, test driver Larry Webster didn't even have his hands on the steering wheel when the tire was deflated by a remote control device at 70 mph.
“The Explorer didn't veer or pull. Only when I applied the brakes toward the end of the run did the Explorer pull enough to require me to put my hands back on the wheel,” said Mr. Webster.
On his way to work last month, Senior Technical Editor Bill Visnic watched the left rear tire on the Jeep Cherokee directly in front of him blow out at about 80 mph (129 km/h). The driver kept the SUV under control and brought it to a safe stop on the shoulder with very little fuss.
The conclusion one can reasonably draw from these observations:
The tragic rollover deaths from tread separations on Ford Explorers are most likely the result of driver errors rather than some insidious engineering defect in the vehicle. This doesn't excuse Firestone for making bad tires that have led to tragedies, but it does take the wind out of the sails of those who insist that a rollover crash is a common consequence of tire failures.
Car & Driver invited journalists from NBC News, the Wall Street Journal and the Detroit Free Press to witness a replay of the tests, but they still were not widely reported in the national media.
Most journalists are naturally suspicious of stories that exonerate big corporations and shift the blame for tragic mishaps to individuals making bad choices. They worry that such stories will be considered by their peers and by their readers as being soft on big business. What's more, Car and Driver's impartiality also could be questioned because Ford Motor Co. is a major advertiser.
Unfortunately, all this healthy skepticism usually is thrown out the window when reporters listen to the woeful tales of crash victims, their families, and their lawyers, even though they stand to win millions from product liability lawsuits against automakers. Their version of events almost always are treated as more credible.
Television newsmagazines are especially guilty of this, and have a long and sordid history of exaggerating and misreporting vehicle safety issues.
The premise is that automakers are evil and greedy and willfully make dangerous and defective vehicles just to make a few extra bucks in profit. Never mind that automotive engineers and other employees drive home every day in the vehicles they design and build, as do their spouses and children.
Perhaps the best example of media misconduct is the Audi 5000 scandal in the mid 1980s. A woman crushed her young son against the back wall of her garage with an Audi 5000. She claimed the car accelerator stuck suddenly and she was unable to stop the car with the brakes. Soon there were dozens of similar claims of Audis running amok, many with tragic results.
After examining the wrecks, Volkswagen AG, Audi's parent, said the claims of the victims were impossible to prove and insisted that drivers were simply stepping on the gas instead of the brake.
Most car experts and magazines such as Car and Driver supported Audi's position, knowing full well that working brakes can always overpower the engine, even at full throttle. But major media outlets chose to ignore basic facts and instead gave front-page treatment to theories about sunspots causing cars to run wild. It took the VW division 15 years to regain its sales momentum, even though it was ultimately proved that drivers indeed were mistakenly stepping on the gas instead of the brake.
You would think that the nation's top journalists would have been chastened somewhat by the Audi embarrassment, but they weren't.
In 1993 the news program Dateline NBC was so eager to prove that General Motors Corp. made pickup trucks that exploded into flames that it abandoned all fundamental journalistic and ethical principles. Its videotape of a GM pickup truck bursting into flames made great television, but Dateline reporters neglected to tell viewers the truck had an over-filled tank, a loose gas cap and a bunch of incendiary devices tied to the chassis to ensure a fire. Dateline had to issue a humiliating on-air apology when it was found out, and it was labeled “an unprecedented disaster in the annals of network news.”
But as long as there are product liability attorneys with big budgets, sophisticated public relations, and reporters willing to more than give them and their clients the benefit of the doubt, automakers will be fighting an uphill battle in the court of public opinion.
So now we have cars equipped with air bags specifically designed to protect people who are not wearing their seat belts. And we have shift interlock mechanisms to make sure drivers don't put cars into gear without having their foot on the brake. And we have a growing number of vehicles equipped with electronic stability control that will make it harder to roll a car or an SUV. Coming soon are tire pressure monitoring systems, smart air bags and devices to prevent you from being locked in your trunk.
I think this is all great news. Sooner or later, bad drivers are going to run out of excuses.
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