The Deadly Dozen – Dangerously Defective SUVs, Pickups and Vans

By J. Whitfield Larrabee

Thousands of Americans are being killed and gravely injured every year in rollover accidents because of the auto industry’s greed, dishonesty and callous disregard for the safety of consumers. Passengers in sport utility vehicles and fifteen passenger vans are three times more likely than car occupants to die in a rollover. Their risk of being paralyzed is also greatly increased. Although they know how to make safe vehicles, some auto executives have cut corners and lied about their actions in order to make more money. People are being killed and maimed as a result.

This report examines twelve vehicles that many analysts believe have dangerous propensities to roll over.

THE DEADLY DOZEN

FORD E350 CLUB WAGON FORD EXPLORER DODGE RAM B3500 VAN
FORD BRONCO II FORD RANGER PICKUP TOYOTA 4RUNNER
MITSUBISHI MONTERO SUZUKI SAMURAI CHEVY S-10 BLAZER
SUZUKI SIDEKICK/ GEO TRACKER ISUZU RODEO ISUZU AMIGO

1.

FORD E-SERIES 15 PASSENGER VANS
FORD ECONOLINE E350
FORD CLUB WAGON
E350 FORD SUPER CLUB WAGON

On May 9, 1999, ten year old Phoebe Jimenez was was a happy child, innocently sitting in the third row behind the driver of a 15-passenger Ford Econoline van. On that day, a tire blew on the van, the driver lost control, and it violently rolled over. From that moment on, little Phoebe has not been able to move much more than her eyes or smile.

Jimenez and her parents sued Ford. In September 2001, a Miami jury found that the van was dangerously prone to roll over, awarding Jimenez and her parents $30.7 million.

The Ford E-350 Superclub Wagon probably poses a greater risk of deadly rollover accidents to its occupants than any vehicle currently being manufactured. Its high center of gravity, poor handling, and excessive weight over the rear tires make it a deadly menace to both passengers and drivers. The United States government reports that over 900 people have been killed or severely injured in rollover crashes involving the Ford Superclub Wagon since 1981, and safety expert Milton Chase has described it as “one of the most dangerous passenger vehicles for rollovers ever built.” The problem has become so severe, the New York Times reports, that many insurance companies now refuse to insure the vans, while other insurers have issued warnings that the vans are “inherently unsafe.”

The E-350 Wagon is “one of the most dangerous passenger vehicles for rollovers ever built.”

– Milton Chase, safety expert

While Ford has long known that the E-350 is deadly menace to the driving public, it refuses to use safer alternative designs such as widening and lengthening the wheel base, adding duel rear tires, or reducing the van’s seating.

Federal Judge Robert W. Gettleman, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, recently found that Ford had willfully concealed test data demonstrating that the E350 was prone to rollovers. In the course of a lawsuit, lawyers presented testimony from a former Ford driver that he experienced a rollover accident during a 40 mile per hour slalom test of the E350. The driver’s testimony contradicted an earlier deposition from a Ford safety executive who testified that the company had never experienced a rollover while testing the vehicle. In fact, the executive had been present during the rollover accident and had instructed the driver not to file an incident report. By putting their company’s profits above the lives of the driving public, Ford’s executives have been criminally negligent.

2. FORD EXPLORER (1990-2001 models)
MERCURY MOUNTAINEER (1997-2001 models)
(These Models Are Basically Identical)

When it introduced the Explorer in 1990, Ford knew it was sentencing thousands of Americans to death, or to a life with catastrophic injuries. In the 1980s, Ford’s engineers warned that its truck based design, its high center of gravity (it is top heavy), and its narrow wheel base would give the Explorer a dangerous propensity to roll over. Yet, Ford executives decided that it was more important to rush the vehicle to market and make money than it was to correct these defects through a time consuming and costly re-design. While Ford has sold millions of Explorers and reaped tens of billions of dollars in profits in recent years, the American people have been killed and maimed in record numbers. Last year, more than 2,400 Americans were killed in SUV rollovers.

Hundreds of Americans have been needlessly killed in Ford Explorer rollover accidents.

More than ten years after it was introduced, Ford had failed to correct many of the deadly defects in the Explorer’s design. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) gave the 2001 Explorer a two star rollover-resistance rating. This means that the Explorer has a 300% greater chance of rolling over than a five-star vehicle (The highest rating is five stars – least likely to roll over, while the lowest rating is one star – most likely to roll over). NHTSA chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge recently declared, “I wouldn’t buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth.”

Recently, Ford has moved more quickly to settle cases involving rollover’s that were induced by tire tread separation, particularly those involving the notorious Firestone tires. The Explorer’s unsafe top heavy design together with defective Firestone tires proved to be a deadly combination.

3. DODGE RAM VAN/WAGON B3500
DODGE RAM WAGON B3500
CHRYSLER RAM 3500

The Ram 3500 Passenger Van has been involved in some of the most horrific van rollover cases. Church groups, families, athletic teams and other groups court disaster when riding in this vehicle. The Ram 3500 suffers from a variety of design flaws that are similar to those of Ford’s Superclub Wagon. Both the Ford and Chrysler 15-passenger vans fail to slide sideways on dry, smooth pavement. This defect results in “frictional tripping” which then causes vehicles to unnecessarily roll over even when the vans are used for their intended purposes. According to safety engineer David Renfroe, the Ram 3500 began to tip over when subjected to a standard “J Turn” test at speeds as low as 35 miles per hour. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) has issued a warning describing these vans as extremely unstable when loaded with more than ten passengers. This is because, the more passengers that are loaded in a vehicle, the more top heavy it becomes. John Stilson, a former design engineer at both Ford and Daimler-Chrysler, is a critic of both companies’ 15 passengers vans. According to Stilson, “the only way you can fix the problem is to totally redesign the vehicle. It’s unreasonably dangerous.”

4. FORD BRONCO II

Ford is responsible for thousands of deaths and catastrophic injuries through the manufacture and sale of the Bronco II. The Bronco II is one of the most deadly vehicles ever placed on America’s highways. Although production of the Bronco II ended in 1990, hundreds of thousands of these vehicles are still being driven. As they age, they are more dangerous than ever. Before the Bronco II was introduced in 1983, Ford engineers warned management that the Bronco’s high center of gravity, narrow track width, and improper steering geometry would cause this vehicle to roll over at speeds as low as 25 miles an hour. These defects make rollover more likely even under regular driving conditions. Normal driving maneuvers, such as swerving to avoid an object in the road, pulling over after a tire goes flat, or avoiding another car, can become deadly in a Bronco II.

Ford has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to resolve claims for death and injury caused by the Bronco II.

The Bronco II’s twin I-beam suspension is defective in that it exhibits high levels of jacking (raising off the ground) when the vehicle corners or is subjected to other lateral forces. When a vehicle jacks as it turns, its center of gravity increases, making a rollover more likely. The Bronco II jacks up almost ten times greater than its main competitor, the Blazer S-10, according to tests conducted by Ford.

Although Ford knew that customers were being killed and that the vehicle was defective, it made no changes to the track width or center of gravity height during the seven years that it produced the Bronco II. In 1990, the Bronco II was replaced by the Ford Explorer, which is manu-factured using the same truck underbody and, as a result, has many of the same problems.

Under current NHTSA standards, the 1988-1990 Bronco II would only receive a one star rollover resistance rating – the worst possible rating.

5. FORD RANGER PICKUP

In 1998, a jury found that Ford knew about the Ranger’s propensity to roll but failed to perform a recall or warn customers of the danger. In that case, 19 year old Dale Robinson died of massive head injuries when his Ranger rolled over during an emergency turn. In a record breaking verdict, the jury awarded $25 million dollars in compensatory damages and $120 million in punitive damages to Robinson’s family.

As a result of the weakness of the Ranger’s roof structure, Ford has been forced to pay out huge sums to settle claims where occupants had been killed and parlyzed. Although Ford has claimed in advertisments that the Ranger has a “safety designed roof structure,” in many accidents the roof crushes in entirely, giving the occupants almost no chance of survival.

In a recent case in Oklahoma, Ford was ordered to pay a teenager $6.5 million after the he suffered permanent brain damage due to the failure of the seat belt in his Ranger. Even after the Oklamoma Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that Ford was responsible, Ford’s executives denied being responsible in published reports.

Although the exact defects have varied greatly from year to year, the Ranger has had more than its share of problems. Drivers and passengers have been harmed as a result of tire tread separation and other tire defects, crush of roof supports and pillars, excessively loose seatbelts, malfunctioning shock absorbers, suspension problems and a dangerously high center of gravity. The Ranger, the Explorer and the Bronco II all share basically same underbody, resulting in horrible price in blood for drivers and passengers of these Ford vehicles.

6. TOYOTA 4RUNNER

Toyota 4Runners built before 1996 are death traps with a severe and dangerous propensity to roll over. The 4Runner’s dangerous defects have been repeatedly established both at trial and on appeal. Even Toyota has admitted that pre-1996 models of the 4Runner roll over on flat, dry pavement due to tire friction forces alone. Toyota tests show that the 4Runner will roll over at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour when a driver takes evasive action. Remarkably, Toyota advertisements show the 4Runner performing evasive maneuvers that in real life would place a driver at severe risk of death in a rollover accident. The 4Runner also has structural weakness in the roof that can cause serious injury or death in the event of a rollover.

Toyota recently submitted a defect information report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) indicating that it was recalling more than 273,000 1996 through early model year 1998 4Runner SUVs to replace rear suspension compo-nents to remedy “directional stability” problems. Thus, even the 4Runners as redesigned in 1996 seem to have dangerous rollover propensities. Under current NHTSA standards, the 1988-1996 4Runner would only receive a one star rollover resistance rating – the worst possible rating. The pre-1996 4Runner is nearly 4 times more likely than the average vehicle to roll over.

7. MITSUBISHI MONTERO

Consumer Reports rated the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited “Not Acceptable” after it tipped up severely on two wheels during Consumers Union’s emergency avoidance-maneuver tests. None of the other six vehicles tested in that group tipped up on two wheels. Of the 118 vehicles Consumer Reports has tested on its short course test track in the past 13 years, only the Suzuki Samurai, in 1988; the Isuzu Trooper and its twin, the Acura SLX, in 1996; and now the Montero Limited tipped up so severely as to be judged Not Acceptable. The 2001 Montero was the product of a major redesign, Mitsibishi’s first redesign of this model since 1992. The 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Sport, a comparable vehicle, received a two star rollover rating from the NHTSA.

“I wouldn’t buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth.”

– NTSHA Chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge

According to a 1996 study by the company Failure Analysis Associates, the Montero had the seventh worst rollover rate of any vehicle on the road. That report tabulated police accident data from seven states, and found that the Montero rolled over more than three times more frequently than the average vehicle, and rolled over nearly as frequently as the previously discussed Ford Bronco II.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) gave the 2001 Monteiro, like the Explorer, a two star rollover-resistance rating. This means that the Monteiro has a 300% greater chance of rolling over than a five-star vehicle. The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety has given the Montero Sport (1996-2000) an overall poor rating on its frontal crash test.

8. SUZUKI SAMURAI

According to Failure Analysis Associates, the Suzuki Samurai has one of the worst rollover rates of any vehicle on the road.

Suzuki sold the Samurai from 1986 though 1989. People started dying in accidents shortly after it was introduced. In 1988, Consumer Reports gave the vehicle a “Not Acceptable” rating due to its prop-ensity to roll over. Consumer groups, including Consumers Union and the Center for Auto Safety, petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recall the Samurai because of its propensity to roll over.

In August 1988, NHTSA reported on a review of 113 report Suzuki vehicle rollovers. NHTSA found that in virtually all fatal rollover accidents, the victim was ejected from the vehicle.

In a case involving a Samurai rollover in Georgia, a federal judge found that Suzuki had provided false information and withheld key documents. He entered a default judgment against Suzuki, “the most severe sanction available.” A federal appeals court affirmed the decision, concluding that Suzuki “engaged in an unrelenting campaign to obfuscate the truth.”

9. CHEVY S-10 BLAZER

On January 19, 2001, a jury awarded $15 million to a young man who suffered quadriplegia when his S-10 Blazer rolled over and the roof crushed in. At the trial, the plaintiffs introduced evidence that General Motors decided against partially strength-ening the roof on its 1992 S-10 Blazer because it would cost $9.00 in metal and its factory would need to be retooled.

In 1993 and 1995 respectively, the aging Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and GMC S-15 Jimmy were redesigned and renamed the Blazer and Jimmy, which is hard not to confuse with the larger sport utility that used to be called the Blazer and Jimmy before then and which became the Chevrolet Tahoe in 1993 and GMC Yukon in 1995. Regardless of the confusion, the S-series compact pickups and sport utility vehicles have several potentially dangerous safety defects. The S10 Blazer/S15 Jimmy, in particular, has performed poorly in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 35 mph crash tests. In many rollover accidents, the roofs on Blazers and Jimmys crush in, resulting in severe injury and death. In such cases, the victims of the accident, if they survive, or their family members, have brought cases asserting that the vehicles were not crashworthy. These claims are based on the failure of General Motors to design the roofs with enough strength to to withstand the forseeable forces of a rollover.

The 2001 Blazer and Jimmy were the only two SUVs rated by the NHTSA to receive one-star, making them one of the most rollover prone SUVs on the market. In 1997, the Jimmy and the Blazer received dismal one-star ratings for risk of head and chest injury to passengers from the NHTSA.

10. SUZUKI SIDEKICK/GEO TRACKER

The Geo Tracker had the worst rollover rate of any vehicle according to an examination of accident data on 200 vehicles by Failure Analysis Associates. That study found that the Geo Tracker rolled over six times more frequently than the average vehicle. The Geo Tracker, and its twin, the Suzuki Sidekick, both have above average injury and death ratings according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.

The Suzuki Sidekick and GEO Tracker are among the smallest and lightest of sport utility vehicles. When vehicles have a high center of gravity and are relatively light, their propensity to roll over is increased. Before the Sidekick/Tracker was put into production, engineers informed Suzuki that the car had problems with instability. To solve the Sidekick’s instability problem, engineers told Suzuki to install a “strut tower brace” in the suspension. In order to save money, Suzuki decided not to install the brace.

The Geo Tracker may be more prone to rollover than any vehicle manufactured in the past 20 years.

Joe Kimmel, a management consultant and member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, has independently developed a mathematical formula for predicting the likelihood of a car, minivan, sport-utility vehicle or light truck rolling over in an accident. Kimmel has concluded that the Chevrolet Tracker and the Suzuki Vitara, newer relatives of the GEO Tracker and Sidekick, are two of the most rollover prone vehicles of 189 he analyzed. He predicts that, in 40% of the accidents that they are involved in, they will rollover.

A review of federal data on deaths in accidents that occurred during calendar years 1990 through 1994 involving passenger vehicles made during model years 1989 through 1993 by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety, found that 298 people died in the Geo Tracker. The Geo Tracker had the highest incidence of death for any vehicle during time period studied.

Suzuki has settled cases alleging that the Suzuki Sidekick/GEO Tracker is dangerously unstable, has suspension and steering defects, is unreasonably prone to rolling over, and is dangerously sensitive to passenger loading.

11. ISUZU RODEO/HONDA PASSPORT (same vehicles)

The Isuzu Rodeo has a dangerous propensity to rollover and, when it does, its poorly designed seat belts have led to paralysis and death. For example, an Arkansas woman was paralyzed in an accident when her Rodeo rolled over and her seatbelt became unlatched for no apparent reason. Shortly after the accident occurred, she received a recall notice in the mail recalling the seat belt and buckle because of defects.

In another case involving the same defective seat belt, the driver was killed when she was literally cut in half during a rollover collision. Lawyers for the family of Jana Ramirez showed that the seat belt failed to satisfy the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. By proving that Isuzu and Takata negligently designed the belt, the lawyers helped the Ramirez family to receive a settlement for a confidential amount.

Unfortunately, Isuzu doesn’t seem to have learned from these accidents. Isuzu is currently being sued over a seat belt failure involving the 2002 Isuzu Rodeo. In that case, two passengers were ejected in a rollover accident, despite the fact that they were using their seat belts.

In another case, a passenger was awarded $5.3 million for Isuzu’s negligence in causing his injuries in a rollover accident. The jury found that Isuzu was negligent in designing and testing the Rodeo.
In its 1996 study, Failure Analysis Associates found that the Rodeo rolled over three and a half times more frequently than the average vehicle. The Isuzu Rodeo rolled over more often than ninety seven percent of the vehicles studied.

12. ISUZU AMIGO

The Isuzu Amigo is one of the most deadly vehicles on the road according to federal accident data. A review of federal data on deaths in accidents that occurred during calendar years 1990 through 1994 involving passenger vehicles made during model years 1989 through 1993 by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety, found that 261 people died in the Isuzu Amigo. This was the third highest highest death rate for these models during time period studied. More people died in the Isuzu Amigo during the period studied than died in Volvo 240, Saab 9000, Volkswagen Passat, Lexus ES 300, Lexus LS 400, Honda Accord, Jeep Grand Cherokee 4×4, Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager combined.

The Isuzu Amigo’s profile is worse than 99% of the other vehicles on the road.

Failure Analysis found in its 1996 study that the Isuzu Amigo rolled over about five times more frequently than the average vehicle. Of the 200 vehicles studied, the Amigo rolled over more often than 198 other vehicles. The only other vehicle with a worse rollover profile was the Geo Tracker. This rollover profile ranks the Isuzu Amigo as worse than 99% of the vehicles on the road.

The Highway Loss Data Institute’s statistics show that the Amigo has higher than average collision and injury ratings. In fact, for the front collision test, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 1998-1999 Amigo its worst rating – “poor.” It also received the “poor” rating for head restraint. Essentially the Amigo was the worst vehicle in its class tested by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety for the 1998-1999 model years.

CONCLUSION

The greed of many automobile executives have filled our roads with rollover prone vehicles.

Although vehicle rollovers occur in only 3% of all car accidents, they result in about 33% of all deaths caused by crashes of passenger vehicles. With ever growing numbers of sport utility vehicles crowding our roads, deaths and severe injuries caused by vehicle rollovers will be on the rise for many years to come. Many of these deaths and injuries will be the result of vehicle instability, roof crush and other passenger compartment failures, and defective seatbelts. Each of these design flaws are preventable. The auto industry can and must be held accountable for the needless death and carnage on America’s roads and highways.