On June 5, 2009, nine teenagers piled into a 1997 Ford Explorer in a Jacksonville high school parking lot. The group of friends was headed for the beach when a tire failed on Interstate 295. The driver, a 15 year old who was neither trained nor licensed to drive, lost control of the vehicle, which rolled several times in the accident. Eight passengers were ejected from the vehicle; only the driver, who was wearing a seatbelt, remained in the vehicle. One passenger died at the scene, and three later succumbed to their injuries in local hospitals.
Now, a year later, the lawsuits begin. First to file was the family of a girl who survived the accident, albeit with serious injuries. The family’s attorney is representing three other families in the lawsuit brought against both Ford Motor Company and Cooper Tire and Rubber. Included in the lawsuit is the local garage that serviced the vehicle and the dealership that sold the used Explorer. In a statement for the media, the family’s attorney alleged that this was a “horrible tragedy” that “could have been prevented”; we’re in absolute agreement to this point. He then accuses Cooper Tire of having a faulty design on the Cooper Cobra radial, and accuses Ford of being involved in deaths “over and over again”. His final question is, “At what point does it call for punitive damages?”
That’s up to a jury to decide now that the suit’s been filed. While I regret the loss of life from this accident and extend condolences to all those involved, the most tragic thing of all is that very little appears to have been learned from it. Let’s examine the facts in the case:
• A 1997 Ford Explorer has seating for five, yet nine teens piled into the vehicle for a 35 mile drive to the beach. Only the driver was wearing a seat belt.
• A 1997 Ford Explorer has a maximum payload of 1,520 pounds, under ideal conditions (good shocks, properly inflated and correctly sized tires, etc.). This payload will be greatly reduced by worn tires or suspension components, tires with an incorrect load rating or underinflated tires. Per the Florida Highway Patrol report, the weight of the passengers was 1,400 pounds; this does not take into consideration any additional cargo or weight in the vehicle.
• The driver was not licensed and presumably had little to no driver training.
• Two tires on the vehicle had been replaced within two weeks of the accident. The police report states that the tires weren’t under-inflated, but they could not have checked the tire that failed since it separated from the wheel in the accident.
Ultimately we have an overloaded vehicle, on a combination of old and new tires that may have been under-inflated for the vehicle load, driven by an underage driver with limited experience. But yet none of that is mentioned in the lawsuit; instead, we’re to believe that profit-hungry corporations like Ford Motor Company and Cooper Tires caused the tragic deaths of four teenagers. Maybe that’s easier for the families to cope with, or maybe that’s just what the attorney’s with dollar signs in their eyes have led them to believe. The truth is hardly as palatable, but let’s look at what went wrong.
First, there’s no getting around the fact that the vehicle was overloaded. Nine teenagers may be able to cram themselves into a Ford Explorer, but a maximum of five will have seat belts. Teen drivers don’t always show common sense (God knows I didn’t), and some mistakes are irreversible. You can’t prevent this from happening in the future, but you can emphasize the need to make good choices behind the wheel.
As drivers, we’re responsible for the safe upkeep of our vehicles. When the shop named in the suit put two new tires on the vehicle, did they recommend to change all four? It’s not a good idea to replace tires two at a time, but many people do this to save money. Could the accident have been avoided if all the tires were new? There’s no way of knowing that, but four new tires would certainly have been safer than a mix of old and new tires.
Although the Florida Highway Patrol report states that the tires weren’t underinflated, they don’t specify what the pressure in the remaining tires was. Tire delamination, which ultimately caused the accident, is generally caused by heat buildup in a tire. Tire overheating is usually caused by a combination of overloading and speed, and the age of a tire can also be a contributing factor. For a fully loaded vehicle, a higher tire pressure would have been recommended by Ford, so even a “normal” tire pressure would have been too low for safe driving. How many people actually check tire pressure or adjust it higher for towing or hauling heavy loads? Not many. How many people actually know what the safe loading is for their car or truck? Again, the answer is not many.
Finally, let’s talk about driving an SUV. SUVs have a higher center of gravity than cars do, hence handling suffers to increase off-road ability. Actions that are safe in a car may lead to a loss of control of an SUV, yet we don’t teach people to drive SUVs any differently from a car.
Driving is generally a very safe activity, and only gets dangerous when something goes wrong. Without proper training, a driver has no ability to deal with sudden emergencies like a tire blowout, but how many parents actually give their newly licensed teens advanced driving lessons? Not nearly enough.
Local media will surely cover the trial with an emphasis on the grieving families, because that brings in the ratings. The real tragedy here is the exploitation of the families by both the media and the legal profession. All the money in the world won’t change the events of June 5, 2009, and placing blame where it really doesn’t belong won’t keep an accident like this from happening somewhere else.