Correction to This Article
A chart with this article about the investigation in the early 2000s of rollover crashes of Ford Explorers, was incompletely labeled. The chart, which tracked tire-related deaths in Explorers, included only those accidents involving Explorers from the model years 1991 through 2000.

Internal Ford documents about Explorer rollovers take a look at engineering

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

These days, federal safety investigators are scrutinizing Toyota, seeking the elusive causes behind hundreds of reports of unintended acceleration.

But a decade ago, the federal safety agency were facing another high-profile technical mystery: More than 100 people had died in Ford Explorers. Was it faulty Firestone tires or was the Explorer itself too prone to rollover?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually sided with the automaker, blaming the tires and rejecting charges that the popular sport-utility vehicle was unstable.

But previously unreported internal Ford documents dredged up in lawsuits since then conflict with the finding that only tires were to blame and call into question the agency's decision not to open a full investigation into the Explorer. The Ford memos show that the company's own engineers had discovered potential dangers in two key Explorer features, its suspension and roof strength, that could make the vehicle especially lethal during a blowout.

After an investigation into 50 Explorer crashes in Venezuela, for example, company engineers concluded that they should replace customers' shock absorbers to "save lives." They did, but only in Venezuela. Explorer engineers also twice sought official deviations from the company's own standards for roof strength, a factor that critics say made the cars more lethal in rollover accidents.

In response, Ford says that the Explorer complied with all federal safety standards, and that the engineers in Venezuela were only exploring one of many theories for the crashes. But the documents, which Ford has sought to keep from becoming public, indicate that it was hardly a clear-cut case.

"The whole thing just screamed greed," said La Rita Morales, part of a jury in California that earlier this year awarded an Explorer driver $23.4 million in damages. "I didn't believe in my heart that a company like Ford would put out a product with question marks over it."

NHTSA officials now say they were aware of the issue with the shock absorbers and discussed the crashes with Venezuelan government officials. Ford says they turned the relevant documents over NHTSA. But in an echo of the Toyota controversy, which has led to another call in Washington for safety reform, the federal agency declined in 2002 to open a formal investigation into the Ford Explorer, just as it had declined for years to open investigations into the Toyota complaints of unintended acceleration.

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Even 10 years ago, NHTSA had some reason to be skeptical of the idea that the tires were the sole cause of Explorer accidents. While Ford was pointing the finger at Firestone's tires, the tiremaker was pointing back, blaming the Explorer for rolling over too easily in blowouts.

Consumer advocates argued that during a blowout, a driver should be able to "pull over, not rollover." An analysis by The Post in 2000 showed that even when the Explorer was equipped with Goodyear tires rather than Firestone products, they had a higher rate of tire-related crashes than other SUVs. The head of the House committee investigating the accidents, Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, said that NHTSA data warranted further scrutiny of the Explorer's handling.

But Ford officials were adamant.

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