- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

You wouldn't take a sports car off-roading or expect it to plow through a snowstorm. Low ground clearance and high performance tires with stiff sidewalls are not the ticket for slogging through mud or negotiating unpaved, rock-strewn roads.
It's generally understood that these purpose-built vehicles are designed to corner and accelerate better than average cars on dry, paved roads but the price one pays for this superior capability in the "sporty" department is offset by a built-in disadvantage when the pavement ends or the weather turns foul. Not surprisingly, few people think sports cars are "defective" because they aren't good in snow.
Yet America's personal injury lawyers are in the process of tarring and feathering another type of purpose-built vehicle in this case SUVs for just such a "failing."
Sport-utility vehicles are like sports cars in that they are specifically designed to be especially good at certain things in this case, handling both bad weather as well as being able to scramble up rough trails and unpaved roads. In order to offer this capability, SUVs are built to ride higher than conventional passenger cars. They have tires of the "light truck" and "all-terrain" type that are designed specifically to maximize off-road ability and complement their truck-type suspension systems.
But, as with purpose-built sports cars, the design characteristics of SUVs do exact a price. SUVs are not as stable at higher speeds, and do not corner or "handle" as well, as sports cars or even conventional passenger cars. But this is only a problem if an SUV is driven inappropriately aggressively, at high speed in bad weather, for instance as if it were a conventional passenger car.
These facts are commonsensical and even if they weren't, SUV manufacturers go to great lengths to inform people of the different handling characteristics of SUVs in the owners' manuals they supply with each vehicle. They also place hard-to-miss advisory warnings on the back of sun visors.
Unfortunately, in our "blame-anyone but me" society, personal injury lawyers have found scores of people willing to be used as props for class-action litigation against SUV manufacturers precisely because they do not want to accept responsibility for having driven their SUVs inappropriately.
Ford's popular Explorer SUV is the personal injury lawyer's primary target but if successful, the present litigation could easily encompass other makers of SUVs, with far-reaching consequences for the entire economy.
The lawyer's have painted bull-eyes on the Explorer in part because of its popularity and in part because the vast majority of its rollover accidents have involved vehicles equipped with Bridgestone/Firestone tires that reportedly suffered tread separation typically while traveling at freeway speeds in hot weather.
Ford, to its credit, moved swiftly to replace some 6 million Bridgestone/Firestone tires on its Explorers. The fast response did not appease the trial lawyers, who contend the "inherent instability" of SUVs is partially to blame for the rollovers.
According to this logic, all SUVs are susceptible to being labeled "defective" for no greater crime than delivering the specific type of functionality sought by those who purchased them.
But are the Ford Explorer or other SUVs "dangerous" beyond the inherent limitations imposed by their design characteristics? The evidence and it is abundant overwhelmingly says no.
* According to accident data compiled by the federal government's Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS), Explorers, are, in fact, not only safer overall than other comparable SUVs but safer than most passenger cars as well.
* FARS data for the period 1991-1999 (the decade during which SUV sales boomed), show there were 1.1 deaths per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in accidents involving the Ford Explorer. The figure for other compact SUVs was 1.3 deaths per 100 million VMT; and for passenger cars, 1.5 deaths per 100 million VMT.
* Moreover, similarly sized SUVs were involved in almost 20 percent more rollover accidents than the Ford Explorer.
* The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that the four-door Explorer has the lowest rollover fatality rate of any large SUV, while the two-door is rated second-best in the midsize SUV category.
The real-world evidence shows that the interior of an Explorer is one of the safest places to be in if you happen to have an accident as is true of SUVs in general. The size and mass (as well as the higher ground clearance) provides excellent occupant protection far superior to that of the typical subcompact, compact and even mid-sized automobile. This fact was acknowledged by the recent decision taken by State Farm Insurance to give insurance premium discounts to drivers of several popular SUV and truck models. The discounts, which reflect the generally lower medical and personal injury costs sustained by SUV occupants involved in accidents, affect the medical portion of the premium, amounting to a reduction of that part of the total cost of approximately 30 percent. (SUVs do incur greater liability i.e., body damage, etc. costs than do most passenger cars.)
Without diminishing the losses suffered by those involved in SUV rollover accidents, it must be pointed out that Ford sells about 450,000 Explorers every year and has done so for many years. Yet of that vast number of Explorers, only a relative handful have been involved in rollover or tire separation accidents. This suggests the possibility that driver behavior (e.g., excessive speed; failure to properly inflate tires, etc.) may have contributed to these specific types of accidents.
Of course, contingency-fee personal injury lawyers continually downplay Explorer's excellent overall safety record, as well as the idea that their clients may bear at least some of the responsibility for their woes. What they are interested in is whipping up fear and hysteria about vehicles that are paragons of safety if driven appropriately and within the limits of their design.
Helping people and juries forget this fact could lead to big paydays for the plaintiffs' bar. But then again, when you're a plaintiff's lawyer, that's ultimately what it's all about.

Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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