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Ford, Firestone in Divorce Court

Read TCC's Award-Winning Firestone Coverage

After almost a century-long intimate relationship, Firestone gave the heave-ho to Ford Motor Company as a major supplier of tires for its new vehicles. Or was it vice versa?

The decision, made public late Monday, is the final act in the drama that began last summer when a series of accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs equipped with certain Firestone tires -- many of them manufactured at a specific plant -- were involved in rollover-type accidents caused, at least to some extent, by catastrophic tire failure.

Ford placed the blame for the accidents on Firestone; Firestone counter-claimed that it was a design defect of the Explorer that was at fault, not its tires -- and has made much of the fact that Ford has significantly altered the rear suspension configuration of the '02 Explorer
from a "live axle" to an independent type that is supposedly more stable during violent maneuvering.

Neither company, however, has been totally honest with the public. And until the truth is told, there will continue to be a higher likelihood of rollover-type accidents involving SUVs.

Treading on the truth

The truth is that, while at least some of the Firestone tires at issue may have been marginal, even defective -- and that while the new Explorer's design is probably less "tipsy" than it was before -- there's no getting around the fact that purpose-built SUVs are being driven by people who have no idea that driving them requires a different attitude and set of skills than does hopping behind the wheel of an ordinary passenger car.

This, more than anything else, is at the root of the phenomenon of higher-than-average accident rates involving SUVs -- particularly those with short wheelbase designs, such as the two-door Explorer Sport.

Ford and the other automakers can try all they want to make what is fundamentally a truck-based vehicle (an SUV) behave as though it were a car. But this cannot be done, at least not without turning the SUV into a car,
or something very close to one. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Gravity pulls

In order to be capable of going "off road," or handling heavy snow and uneven terrain, etc., the typical SUV sits significantly higher off the ground than a typical passenger car. This extra clearance results in a higher center of gravity -- in layman's terms, the vehicle is "top heavy." Thus, it is much more susceptible to tipping over in the event of a sudden jerk of the wheel at high speed -- such as can be expected to occur when a novice driver reacts to, for example, a sudden tire failure. The SUV is also much less controllable, even if it does not tip over -- again, because of more dramatic weight shifts than would otherwise occur in a passenger car.

For example, when a tire blows out on a high-riding SUV, that corner of the vehicle will dip abruptly. If it happens to be one of the front tires that blows, the back end of the truck becomes suddenly lighter as more weight shifts to the front of the vehicle. It doesn't take much to upset this already tenuous balance -- and the average driver, in a panic-type situation, will often either jerk the wheel abruptly or slam on the brakes. Either
action is usually catastrophic.

When you factor in that modern SUVs are routinely driven by such average/inexperienced drivers at 70 or even 80-mph (sometimes faster, as in the great expanses of the South and West, where the majority of last summer's accidents took place), it's no wonder there has been a problem.

What Ford and the other automakers need to do is mount an aggressive education campaign to inform consumers about the driving dynamics of SUVs and
pickup trucks. The best tires in the world won't make SUVs "safe" at 80 mph. At least, not nearly as safe as a conventional passenger car. Making the public aware of the inherent limitations of SUVs might dampen somewhat the red-hot enthusiasm for these formerly specialty-type vehicles among the general public -- and thus cost the automakers some sales.

But it comes down to one question: which is more important -- saving lives or making money?

The ball is in the automakers' court. Let's see how they play it.

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