`Frontline' details dangers of SUVs

Preview: The hard-driving report should leave sports utility vehicle owners ready for a trade-in.

February 20, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There's no nice way of saying this: If you paid big bucks for one of those tall, expensive SUVs, you are a fool. Twice a fool actually, because not only did you pay one of the highest mark-ups ever calculated by Detroit, but you also are putting yourself and your family in danger.

That's the message of a hard-hitting Frontline report, "Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV," airing tomorrow on PBS. Between "Rollover" and last week's "American Porn," Frontline is on a muckraking roll. I mean that in the best sense of the word: taking on powerful wrongdoers, exposing their lies and laying them low.

Furthermore, there are no unsupported, sensational charges and other excesses often associated with muckraking. Frontline builds its case bolt by bolt, explaining the history, economics, consumer psychology, safety record and failure of government oversight that led to the public being taken in by the auto industry.

According to "Rollover," the SUV was born of deceit. Automakers trying to circumvent the tough and much-needed fuel economy laws of the late 1970s had an idea: Light trucks were exempt from the fuel standards (to benefit farmers and others using trucks in their jobs), so why not bypass the law by putting the body of a passenger car on a truck frame? A loophole is a loophole, no?

As one analyst puts it in tonight's report: "When the law was passed, light trucks were used for hauling hay to the market and to silos. But today, they're used for hauling lattes home from Starbucks."

With a lot of help from television and magazine advertising that positioned the SUV as a way to keep its owners safely above the unwashed masses - especially the urban unwashed masses - sales boomed.

But the public wasn't told that SUVs are given to rollovers. The problem involves the ratio of height to width: SUVs generally are too tall for their body width, and some have been known to roll over at speeds as low as 20 mph.

More than 12,000 people have been killed in SUV rollovers since the arrival of the first big-selling SUV, the Ford Bronco II, some 20 years ago. Viewers will see a Ford engineer testifying in the report that his company knew the Bronco II had serious rollover problems but did nothing about it.

The focus tonight is on Ford - and there's a reason for that. In 2000, Congress convened hearings into injuries and deaths attributed to Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorers. Backed into a corner, corporate cannibalism broke out, and Firestone trashed Ford to try and save its own hide. "Mr. Chairman, I must say ... there is something wrong with the Ford Explorer," Firestone chairman John Lampe said during the hearings.

In tonight's report, Keith Bradsher, former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, says: "The Firestone deaths are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with sport utility vehicles. There's a lot bigger problem out there that people aren't really paying attention to."

How's this for an ending? In Austin, Texas, a Frontline crew interviews parents whose children were killed in SUV rollovers. A crash occurs nearby, and the camera crew runs over and films the aftermath of the crash:

A woman is trapped in an upended SUV.

Tomorrow's TV

What: "Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: Frontline takes on SUV safety and wins.

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