Analyzing the Corporate Way of Dealing with Public Safety (Ford/Firestone)

More than 400 years ago, Sir Edward Coke observed that the corporation has no soul. Today, Ford Motor Co. and Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. are embroiled in situations that reflect the soulless attributes of the corporate estate. Herein is a tale of two corporations in brief which raises the question: Would these people do to their neighbors what they are doing to consumers? On May 8, 1978, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made an initial finding that 1.9 million 1971-76 Ford Pintos and 30,000 Mercury Bobcats have serious fuel system defects which can lead to fires in low- to moderate-speed rear-end collisions.

A public hearing is scheduled for June 14, 1978, by NHTSA at which Ford intends to contest the defect finding. But if the finding is upheld, Ford will be forced to recall these cars.

For several years, reports of victims horribly burned in Pinto fuel tank ruptures came to the attention of the federal government and Ford Motor Co. The Center for Auto Safety (CFAS) and other consumer groups forwarded such reports or letters to the government. In 1974 and 1977, consumer groups called for the recall of the Pinto. Finally the NHTSA crash-tested the Pinto and other similar models and reported its finding of defect.

Ford Motor Co. was aware of the fuel tank design of the Pinto at least as early as 1970. In 1971, Ford engineers developed two methods of improving the crashworthiness of the fuel tank. The first proposal was to mount the fuel tank over the rear axle surrounded by a body sheet metal barrier that would have cost $9.95 more than the 1971 Pinto price. The second proposal was a bladder within a tank which would have been $5.08 extra. The 1970 Capri had its fuel tank mounted over the rear axle with safer results in Ford’s own tests. But the Pinto did not benefit from the Capri’s tank location.

In 1974, Ford began testing a high-density plastic shield on the front of the gas tank. This shield, which costs about $1, was not installed on Pintos until the 1977 model year when passenger automobiles were required by the government to pass a modest rear-end crash test. Those 1971-76 Pinto owners can now buy this “fuel tank shield” from Ford dealers. The part number is D7FZ-9B007-A. Cost of installation is between $20 and $25.

As documented in a Mother Jones magazine article last year, the Pinto fuel tank decision was the subject of close company attention. The calculators were put to work. It was determined that Ford would save more money with the exposed design than the value of human lives lost and injuries incurred. This Ford memo introduced at trial helped a conservative California jury decide to award a seriously burned Pinto victim millions of dollars in punitive damages a few months ago. Still the Pintos roam the highway and the avoidable burn casualties mount.

Firestone has its hands full with its 500 steel belted radial tire–surely one of the most complained about tires in history. Rep. John Moss, D-Calif., found letters and calls pouring into his office after conducting recent hearings on this defective tire. Owners of cars with these tires have written us for months about their experiences of the sudden blowouts registered by the Firestone 500s. These letters were forwarded to the auto safety agency which has the authority to force recalls. A decision is expected in July.

Firestone has finally stopped production of the Firestone 500 but continues to sell its inventory in Florida and Alabama at “half price.” Its defiance of consumer rights and the government’s tire safety mission verges on a company going berserk against both the public’s and its own interest.

Firestone filed suit to block the government from revealing a compiling of motorist complaints about different brands of tires, including the 500. The resultant adverse publicity was massive.

The company also refused for months to comply with government requests for defect information about the 500 steel belted radial. The more the company stonewalls, the more outraged its customers and the more discomforted its dealers become. In the meantime, reports of motorist fatalities and injuries following one or more 500 tire blowouts accumulate.

The Center for Auto Safety, which first brought the Firestone 500 tire situation to public light last year, now has reports of 20 fatalities attributed to Firestone steel belted radial failures. CFAS believes these cases just scratch the surface and that a national dragnet for such tragedies would net many more.

Firestone’s lawyers and outside counsel (the Jones & Day law firm) are rushing around with their subpoenas to find out who leaked the government’s tire defect survey to the public. The lawyers have alienated reporters and editors who believe they are being dragged into a desperate diversionary foray by Firestone to avoid doing something about a lemon tire. The big tire company has focused its soulless rage on the tiny CFAS while it ignores the plight of hundreds of thousands of its customers.

Would these persons at Ford and Firestone behave this way to their neighbors, one might ask again? What happens to them when they go to work behind the corporate curtain that separates them from consumers? The contrast is worth pondering.

But more imminently, Pinto and Firestone 500 owners should call the auto safety agency’s toll-free hotline (800-424-9393) for information or send their emergency letters to the Department of Transportation, NHTSA, Washington, D.C., and the Center for Auto Safety, Dupont Circle Building, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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