- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

DETROIT, March 11 (UPI) — An environmental group wants federal auto safety officials to reopen an investigation into rollovers of Ford Bronco II sport-utility vehicles.

Ford ceased production of the boxy Bronco II in 1990 when it was replaced by the Explorer, the world's best-selling SUV for the last 12 years.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group said Ford paid an expert witness $5 million over eight years to change his testimony on the vehicle's rollover risk.

The watchdog group claimed in a report released on Monday Ford paid David Bickerstaff, a Southfield engineer, some $4,000 a day to testify the Bronco II had a rollover rate no higher than comparable vehicles.

The Environmental Working Group review said Ford engineers knew in 1982 the sport utility vehicle was prone to roll over during routine safety tests.

The report, available on the group's Web site ewg.org, claims memos and court documents show before he agreed to become Ford's expert, Bickerstaff testified the Bronco II was dangerously unstable and rollover prone in pre-production tests. The report said Ford chose not to delay the vehicle's introduction to widen its track three or four inches and lower its center of gravity, changes it claims would have cost $83 per vehicle.

The group said it would petition the National Highway Safety Administration to reopen its investigation of the Bronco II this week.

"Ford spent the last 20 years saying it couldn't make higher mileage SUVs because doing so would endanger customers. These documents reveal a shocking degree of indifference to the safety of people who bought the Bronco II," said Environmental Working Group General Counsel Heather White. "These are not allegations. Why wasn't safety job 1."

Ford closed two investigations of Bronco II safety without finding any defect in the vehicle, which began production in 1983. The last NHTSA investigation ended 13 years ago.

Ford Motor Co. spokesman Jon Harmon told the Detroit News Ford has won five lawsuits between 1990 and 1996 that accused the automaker of fraud.

"Our vehicles have an exemplary safety record spanning many years and many billions of miles of real-world driving," he said.

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