WASHINGTON – Recent congressional hearings probed the accountability of Ford and Firestone in many incidents where car or tire malfunctioned, causing injury or death. The hearings also questioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal government\’s chief regulator of automobile safety, and its role in providing the public with adequate information.
While the blame-placing among corporate executives and congressional subcommittees occurred on Capitol Hill, several analysts decried the lack of accountability being demanded of the corporations involved. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, pointed to a lack of regulation of sport utility vehicles and rollover standards.
\”Rollover crashes are dangerous, but they need not be deadly,\” Claybrook said. \”The NHTSA — under constant pressure from auto manufacturers — doesn\’t require companies to design vehicles in a way that will help people survive rollover crashes.\”
Claybrook indicated that the tragedy of rollover crashes — responsible for 10,400 deaths annually and the cause of one-third of automobile deaths — could be avoided if Ford and other SUV makers installed \”a new kind of synthetic roof that acts like a roll bar and prevents roofs from crushing.\”
According to Claybrook, such a standard could have been established as early as 1991, when Congress \”directed NHTSA to conduct a rulemaking on a minimum rollover standard.\” The rulemaking was abandoned by NHTSA in 1994 without implementing a standard, fostering what Claybrook calls \”an entire class of popular but dangerously unstable vehicles.\”
With the two corporations blamed for approximately 200 deaths and 700 injuries, Claybrook had a simple response to the Ford and Firestone executives\’ repeated shifting of responsibility.
\”Both are right. Firestone produced a faulty tire, as Ford has said. And Ford manufactured and zealously marketed its Explorer despite knowing it was prone to rolling over, like its precursor, the Bronco II,\” Claybrook said.
Jeff Milchen, founder of ReclaimDemocracy.org, points to the Ford-Firestone accountability issue as an indicator of an unpublicized epidemic of corporate crime. Citing the fact that Ford and Firestone executives knew of at least 35 deaths and 130 injuries resulting from defective products before Congress began its official probe in early 2000, Milchen added that \”executives willfully and knowingly kept unsafe products on the market that they knew would kill many more innocent people.\”
Milchen, who says his organization is devoted to revitalizing grassroots democracy and revoking illegitimate power of corporations, noted that the executives of Ford and Firestone, while evidently responsible for the 200 SUV-related deaths, have \”received no punishment for their actions.\” In fact, according to Milchen, \”there has not been a single indictment of either corporation, nor of any culpable corporate officers to date.\”
Milchen contends that crimes committed by corporations should be treated the same as those committed by individuals.
\”If you loan your friend a car you know to be unsafe while withholding that information, you could be convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the event of a fatal accident,\” Milchen said. \”Yet we permit corporate officers to commit the same offense with impunity if they do it on the job.\”
\”Nearly every candidate for public office talks tough on street crime, but then ignores the fact that corporate crime costs our society more than street crime in both dollars and lives taken,\” Milchen said, noting that, while 24,000 are murdered annually, 400,000 die each year from tobacco-related diseases. A result, Milchen asserts, of \”longtime tobacco industry marketing practices aimed at hooking adolescents into a lifetime of tobacco addiction.\”
Milchen proposed a plan to thwart corporations that through criminal actions repeatedly endanger U.S. citizens.
\”We should consider the practice of our country\’s founders,\” Milchen said. \”They regularly exercised a corporate \’death penalty\’ by revoking the charters of recidivist corporations whose products or actions harmed society.\”
Evan Woodward is a writer with IPA Media, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy.