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July 4, 2001
Ford Wants to Send Drivers of Sport Utility Vehicles Back to School
By KEITH BRADSHER
DETROIT, July 2 — The Ford Motor Company wants to send Americans back to school to learn how to drive sport utility vehicles.
After buying a stake in the largest chain of driving schools, Top Driver Inc., a few months ago, the automaker is developing a course to teach motorists how to drive sport utility vehicles differently from cars. Top Driver officials said the course would cover all aspects of driving, including rollover risk, the long stopping distances of sport utility vehicles and what to do if a tire blows out or suddenly loses its tread.
The driving school is being planned as Ford trades blame with Firestone over rollovers of Ford Explorers after the treads peeled off, killing more than 100 people. Mid- level Ford officials say they have found another factor in the accidents: driver error. But company leaders refuse to talk publicly about the role of drivers in the rollovers.
While Ford's rivals have not resorted to buying stakes in driving schools, auto industry executives say that many drivers are unaware that sport utility vehicles must be driven differently from cars. They are more prone to rolling over during sharp turns or when they strike low objects like curbs and guardrails. And while four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive helps sport utility vehicles accelerate without slipping, it does not help slow a vehicle unless the driver uses the first gear to slow the engine instead of applying brakes, a difficult maneuver often practical only in deep snow or off-road driving.
"If you're coming out of a passenger car, you need to understand the differences," Matt Reynolds, director of vehicle safety at DaimlerChrysler, said.
Given the tire controversy, Ford's safety engineers and lawyers are reviewing the Top Driver curriculum. Sebastian Giordano, the chief executive and president of Top Driver, said the company was preparing three- to four-hour courses for Ford, with classroom instruction and practice in a vehicle.
Top Driver, which operates 230 schools across the country, is also preparing instructional videotapes and compact discs. Ford will decide whether owners of its sport utility vehicles must pay for courses, Mr. Giordano said, adding that other motorists would probably be charged, though fees had not been set.
Bill Waslick, Top Driver's vice president for health and safety, said his company and Ford would advise all drivers, but especially those in sport utility vehicles, to avoid sharp turns if a tire blew out or otherwise failed. Motorists should slow the vehicle gradually and then ease it onto the shoulder, Mr. Waslick said.
The sport utility driver, he added, should also keep more distance between his vehicle and others to avoid having to maneuver abruptly, which could cause a rollover, and to compensate for the sport utility vehicle's inferior braking.
"Most people think it brakes faster, and it does not," Mr. Waslick said, adding that he had been exchanging drafts of the course's content with Ford officials.
Ford mentioned plans for the course in a sentence near the bottom of a news release last winter. The company's officials confirmed that the courses were planned but declined to provide details. Top Driver has done so.
No state requires separate instruction to drive a sport utility vehicle. Virtually all driving schools that provide vehicles for students furnish cars rather than sport utility vehicles because cars are easier to drive and cheaper to provide.
Ford has been concerned for years about the way people drive sport utility vehicles. A market research report commissioned by the company in 1993 and obtained by personal- injury lawyers shows that a problem had been identified that early.
While sport utility owners do drive cautiously sometimes, the report said, "either due to their driving preference or the feeling of size/ safety they have from their vehicle, they are more likely to push the safety envelope."
Safety advocates and personal-injury lawyers say they welcome Ford's decision to improve driver education, but they complain that Detroit has been too busy marketing sport utility vehicles, the mainstay of the auto industry's profits, to warn drivers of their dangers.
Citing an insurance industry report in May, which found that driver education programs do little to enhance safety except for beginning drivers, the critics said Ford and other automakers should improve the stability of sport utility vehicles instead.
"Why don't they redesign the vehicle?" said Joan Claybrook, the top traffic safety regulator in the Carter administration and now the president of Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned drivers of sport utility vehicles to be aware of rollover risks. But the agency is not looking at driver behavior or at the Explorer in its investigation of the tire failures. It has been investigating only the tires, because the accidents began when tires failed.
A report by the agency last summer, based on focus groups, said that drivers consistently underestimated the severity of the rollover problem. Each year, about 11,000 Americans die in vehicles that roll over, slightly more than a fourth of traffic deaths. Some research has also suggested that rollovers account for most of the instances of paralysis, though rollovers account for less than 1 percent of crashes. About 20 percent of the rollover deaths occur in sport utility vehicles, though such vehicles account for only 9 percent or 10 percent of registered vehicles.
Ford cited driver error in defending some early lawsuits but has largely refrained from doing so in recent months. Eager to put the problem behind it, Ford has been negotiating out-of-court settlements and sending officials to apologize to survivors of rollover accidents.
Ford insisted until last month that Firestone pay the bulk of the settlements because the Explorers rolled over only after tires failed. But that arrangement appears to have collapsed since the Bridgestone/Firestone company's decision on May 21 to stop selling tires to Ford.
Ford executives have been reluctant to mention publicly mistakes by drivers, for fear of antagonizing customers and appearing to be blaming the victims of rollover accidents. Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's group vice president for global vehicle development and quality, said at a news conference in early June that in 90 percent or more of the tire failures, the Explorers had not rolled over. In these cases, Mr. Parry- Jones said, drivers had probably followed the advice long taught new drivers about how to deal with tire failures.
Mr. Parry-Jones refused to discuss what drivers might have done in the Explorers that rolled over.
"It's very difficult to reconstruct what the driver was doing," he said.
A Ford official who insisted on anonymity said the company had decided not to reveal evidence of driver error. But the official said that the prevalence of failed left rear tires in the fatal and injurious crashes indicated that Explorer drivers had been swinging too quickly to the right, either in alarm at the loud bang of a tire coming apart or in an effort to reach the shoulder of the road swiftly.
When the left rear tire loses its tread, the official said, it also loses traction. If the driver turns to the right, the rear of the vehicle swings to the left.
"It's not what you've been taught to do, but it's an understandable reaction because it's a loud event, it's a violent event," the official said.
Executives at other automakers said they had reached the same conclusions about the predominance of failures of the left rear tire.
Jill Bratina, a Firestone spokeswoman, said all types of tires failed occasionally. The Explorer is unusually hard to control after a tread separates from a tire, Ms. Bratina said. Ford officials deny this.
C. Tab Turner, a personal-injury lawyer in Little Rock, Ark., who filed many of the lawsuits against Ford and Firestone, said the fault remained with the companies, not the drivers. When a tire tread peels off, Mr. Turner said, the Explorer lurches sideways. The driver must turn the steering wheel sharply, which causes the rear to swing back and forth so much that the Explorer rolls over, he said.
"This is typical Ford," Mr. Turner said. "They blame everyone but themselves, and victims are easy whipping dogs because most of them are dead."
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