Ford Truck Rollovers

Before gas prices went through the roof, demand for SUVs and large trucks was higher than any other vehicle type. Before demand dropped, Ford and other automakers were able to make as much as $15,000 in profits per vehicle when selling trucks and SUVs. Profit margins were as high as 40% - an amazing number when one considers that many passenger vehicle profit margins were 1-5%. These decisions helped Ford make more than $40 billion in the 90's. What were they doing with their enormous profits? They were not using them to increase vehicle safety.

According to one study, Ford F-150s, F-250s, F-350s, Explorers, Excursions, Mountaineers, Navigators, Expeditions, and SporTracs built between 1994 and 2000 roll over twice as much as all other SUVs in single-vehicle, non-tire-related accidents.

How an SUV SHOULD and CAN be designed to withstand a rollover:

This video shows a 45 mph rollover. Note the lack of roof deformation in the vehicle which protects the occupants inside.

Designed for profits, not safety:

What happens after these rolls occur? There is actually no one reason that Ford SUVs and trucks are prone to rolling over and injuring their occupants, there are "layers" of defects, anyone of which can lead to death or serious injury. Oftentimes, more than one defect plays a part in a Ford SUV/truck accident.

1. The suspension makes the Explorer and Ford trucks (such as the F-150 and F250) more vulnerable to rollovers.

The roots of that Explorer's problems lie in Ford's original design decision to build the new sport utility on the platform (frame) of a pickup truck instead of all in one piece, like a car. In the 80's and 90's, Ford was under pressure to compete with General Motors and other manufacturers' SUV's and wanted to tap into the emerging new market of high profit sport utility vehicles. To do so, they originally decided to build the Explorer on the same platform (frame & chassis) as the Ford Ranger, Ford's smallest pickup.

To keep costs down and maximize profits, Ford decided to use the Ranger's underbody for the Explorer too. But while the Explorer looked roomy and tough, its design actually limited the weight it could safely carry. By extending the passenger compartment and installing a second row of seats, Ford made the Explorer more than 600 pounds heavier than the Ranger but did not upgrade the suspension and tires to carry the bigger load. That meant a typically equipped Explorer could carry 1,025 pounds, even less than the 1,100 pounds for a Taurus. Many Explorers are built to carry as little as 900 pounds - a 150-pound person in each of five seats and 150 pounds of cargo. This means that when more weight is loaded on the vehicle - which is often the case when 4 or 5 people are in the Explorer, it can become dangerously unstable.

In developing the Explorer, Ford's engineers were constrained from the start by previous decisions that locked the SUV onto a narrow truck frame and into a front-end suspension that was designed in the 1960s. As early as 1987, a Ford memo warned that "light-truck rollovers are 2 to 4 times the car rate" and urged Explorer developers to consider "any design action that improves vehicle stability or helps maintain the passenger safety in the vehicle." Ford maintains it did exactly this.

The Explorer's platform dates back to the late 1970s, when Ford created a new line of light trucks--code-named Yuma--that came to include the Ranger pickup and the now infamous Bronco II. Both vehicles used a unique "Twin I-Beam" suspension that raised their center of gravity by placing crisscrossing beams atop one another between the front tires.'The company marketed I-Beam directly to consumers, since it had been used on the original and highly popular Bronco. But the Bronco II became a nightmare for Ford, which by the late 1980s faced more than 800 lawsuits that stemmed from accidents involving rollovers. That didn't deter Ford from using the same suspension on the new Explorer, which allowed the automaker to build the SUV on the same assembly lines as the Ranger pickup.

This choice soon produced unsettling results. While undergoing handling maneuvers in 1989, an Explorer prototype showed a greater tendency to lift its wheels while turning--a possible prelude to rollovers--than even the Bronco II. The test report observed that the Explorer had to be "at least equivalent to the Bronco II in these maneuvers to be considered acceptable for production."

That was a rock-bottom standard, since the image of the Bronco II continued to worsen. In June 1989 a Consumer Reports article titled "How Safe Is the Bronco II?" rated its handling as poor in a test that simulated rapid lane changes. The Consumers Union publication advised "prudent buyers" to steer clear of it. According to an original analysis prepared for TIME by University of Michigan statistician Hans Joksch, an expert in automotive statistics, the Explorer has had approximately the same rate of fatal rollovers as the Bronco II.

The Consumer Reports results stunned Ford engineers, who acknowledged in a memo that passing "the Consumers Union test became an implicit requirement for Explorer due to the potential for adverse publicity." The memo was referring to a double-lane-change test that Consumers Union used to evaluate an automobile's real-world maneuverability.

Ford made a curious choice with regard to the Explorer's tires. After putting the SUV through the Consumers Union test, engineer Roger Stornant wrote that the results yielded "a high confidence of passing CU with [Firestone's] P225 tires and less confidence on the [Firestone] P235." Ford chose the larger P235 anyway. Marketed first as the ATX and then as the Wilderness AT, the P235 became the tire that Firestone later recalled.

In a chilling aside, Stornant wrote that Ford "management is aware of the potential risk with P235 tires and has accepted [that] risk. CU test is generally unrepresentative of the real world," Stornant said, "and I see no 'real' risk in failing [the CU test] except what may result in the way of spurious litigation."With the Explorer's 1990 production date approaching, Ford engineers listed four options for improving the stability of the SUV: widening the chassis by 2 in.; lowering the engine; or lowering the tire pressure and stiffening the springs. Ford chose the latter two fixes and recommended a tire pressure of 26 p.s.i.--rather than the 30-to-35 p.s.i. that Firestone normally used in its tires--to produce a more road-gripping ride. This created friction between Ford and Firestone after last year's recall, with Firestone insisting that the low pressure had increased the heat on the tires and caused the tread separations.

Ford engineers could hardly wait to replace the Explorer's outmoded front suspension. In another 1989 memo, engineer Charles White noted the start of discussions "to revise the Ranger and [Explorer] suspension due to out-of-date performance of the Twin I-Beam." White added that although Ford had planned to replace the Twin I-Beam in 1998, "it was agreed that we would look at earlier incorporation of a new front suspension out-of-cycle for the reasons stated above, not safety." Replied engineer David Houston: "In the event you take a poll, my vote would be to change the cycle plan to replace the current front suspension at the earliest possible opportunity. I believe that this would positively position the [Explorer] to be immune from criticism arising from allegations regarding limit handling maneuvers"--an apparent reference to the SUV's test-track performance.

By 1995, Ford had finally replaced the Explorer's unloved Twin I-Beam with a short-and-long-arm suspension but didn't act on previous recommendations to lower the engine and widen the chassis. And since the new suspension weighed less than the Twin I-Beam, the change raised--not lowered--the SUV's center of gravity.A warning light flashed in August 1996 when, documents show, a trainee test driver in Oscoda, Mich., lost control of an Explorer while conducting lane-change maneuvers at 52.5 m.p.h. According to the accident report, the driver overcorrected for a rear-end slide, sending the vehicle first into a four-wheel slide and then a 360[degree] flip.

Engineers were concerned from the get-go about the Explorer's stability during emergency handling procedures. After a test-track trial in April 1989--one year before the Explorer reached showrooms billed as a rugged and reliable family vehicle--a report noted that the SUV prototype "demonstrated a rollover response ... with a number of tire, tire-pressure [and] suspension configurations." Another report noted that the Explorer's "relatively high engine position ... prevents further significant improvement in the Stability Index [a measure of resistance to tipping] without extensive suspension, frame and sheet-metal revisions," which the company rejected.When the Explorer was introduced in 1990, Ford was concerned enough about its stability that it advised owners to maintain a relatively low tire pressure of 26 pounds per square inch, because softer tires made the suspension feel better for test drivers and sold more cars, which perhaps helping an out-of-control vehicle to slide rather than tip over. Firestone, which provided many of the tires that Explorers came equipped with from the factory, would later fault Ford for such a practice as it led to tire failures and tread separation. The Firestone-recommended psi molded into the tire for maximum load was 35psi, significantly higher than the Ford recommendation.

Yet the redesign in the '95 model year made the Explorer's center of gravity slightly higher and the stability index--a rough measure of rollover propensity--slightly worse, records show. With the new suspension system Ford installed in 1995 and later model Explorers, the auto maker could have lowered the center of gravity of the top-heavy vehicles by lowering the engine height, according to memos by Ford engineers. But the company decided to retain the original engine position, at least partly to hold down redesign costs and preserve profit margins of nearly 40% on the popular Explorer, the documents show. Firestone, which provided many of the tires that Explorers came equipped with from the factory, would later fault Ford for such a practice as it led to tire failures and tread separation.

One measure of stability looks at a vehicle's stability in an emergency manuever, nicknamed the fishhook. This manuever will likely have to be performed by every driver at some point in their lives, and while not an everyday occurrence, is a manuever that a vehicle should be able to safely perform. A driver is often call upon to perform this maneuver when a obstacle suddenly appears in their lane.

One might think that Ford would work quickly to solve the problem, but more than 20 years later, some Ford trucks and SUV's are still much more unstable than other manufacturer's vehicles, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). For instance, the 2wd 2004 Ford Explorer SportTrac received a 2 star (2 out of 5) rating for rollovers! No other vehicle scored this poorly in 2004. This 2 star rating continued for the 2005 2wd Ford Explorer SportTrac, while the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 2wd 4 door Ford Explorer only received the lowest score of any SUV tested in the NHTSA rollover rating. The 4wd Ford Explorer scored similarly, scoring at the bottom of all vehicles tested in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The subpar NHTSA rollover ratings were not just limited to Ford SUV's as Ford trucks brought up the rear in their class as well. The 2005, 2006, 2007, and Ford Ranger regular and extended cab 4wd models (and their sister models, the Mazda B-series pickups) both scored 2 out of 5 start the lowest rating given for those years. The 2009 For Ranger and sister Mazda pickups also tied for the lowest rollover score given in 2009.

A good example of how the Explorer's poor suspension might contribute to a rollover is found in this computer animation:

In the animation, the driver can be seen doing an emergency lane change maneuver - something almost every motorist will encounter at some time. This maneuver is necessary when something appears in a driver's lane and it is necessary to take evasive actions and a driver must quickly steer out of and then back into their lane.

Ford also chose the same size tires it had long chosen for the Ford Ranger. Those tires had the lowest possible rating for withstanding high temperatures. And when Ford lowered the recommended tire pressure in 1989 to increase stability and soften the ride, it also further reduced the tires' ability to carry weight without overheating. Tire pressure has of course become an issue in the Firestone controversy, with Firestone arguing that the lower recommended pressure - 26 pounds per square inch, compared with 35 for the Ranger - had contributed to the tires' failure, especially where Explorers were being driven at high speeds during the hot summer months.

This information is bolstered by The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration which says "Improperly inflated and worn tires can be especially dangerous because they inhibit your ability to maintain vehicle control, the most important factor in reducing the chance of rollover. Worn tires may cause the vehicle to slide sideways on wet or slippery pavement, sliding the vehicle off the road and increasing its risk of rolling over. Improper inflation can accelerate tire wear, and can even lead to tire failure."

2. Reduced roof strength of Ford Explorers, SUV's and Trucks (such as the F150) leads to serious and often fatal injuries:

The next serious problem with Ford SUV's and trucks involves their roof strength which is inferior to many of their competitors and even inferior to the strength of the trucks they built in years past. This problem can cause death or serious injury, including paralysis, for those riding in the Ford SUV or truck when the roof of the vehicle crushes into the passenger compartment, in a phenomenon called "passenger compartment intrusion."

Compare the Ford Explorer's rollover performance to that of a Volvo SUV. Keep in mind that Volvo is owned by Ford.

3. Poor door latches:

In 2004, NHTSA was doing a routine side impact test on the 4-door Ford Explorer when they noted that the driver's door became unlatched upon impact - a scenario which was NOT supposed to happen at that speed of impact.

To find out, and to further demonstrate Ford trucks' lack of safety, one law firm conducted a study. They bought a Ford truck and dropped it from a crane upside down from a height of only six inches. Even at the calculated fall speed of a mere five miles per hour, the cab of the roof was crushed down level to the height of the truck bed. This study proved that in any rollover, many Ford trucks offer no protection to occupants of the cab, and that preventable injury and wrongful death can result.

Ford trucks' and SUVs' lack of safety is unacceptable to Jeremiah L. Johnson, LLC, and we currently represent numerous clients injured from Ford truck rollovers.

Were you injured in a Ford truck rollover? Have you lost a loved one due to a crushed or rolled Ford SUV? Call Jeremiah L. Johnson, LLC at 816-581-4602.

We believe that Ford truck and safety technology has advanced very little since the 1970s, and often falls short of government safety guidelines. Suspension issues, doors that pop open easily and weak roofs all lead to a high rate of serious injuries as a result of the rollovers. Ford trucks and SUV should not flip on quick turns, and should offer protection in the event that a flip occurs. Unfortunately, design, manufacture and material defects have left Ford drivers exposed to unnecessary danger, injuries and death.