Monday, May 14, 2007

The Ford Pinto

Ford Motors introduced the Pinto in 1970 as competition to the quickly expanding domestic and foreign subcompact car market. Though development and testing of new cars usually takes forty-three months, the Pinto was released in just over two years. Unfortunately, this may have come at a great cost to Pinto consumers, as crash tests showed that the fuel tank was prone to rupturing in crashes at speeds above 25mph and that the car failed rear impact tests when being hit at speeds greater than 20mph. Though aware of this potentially dangerous crash test information, Ford continued Pinto production, maintaining that it met all federal safety standards in effect in the 1970s.

In a study done to improve design, Ford found that the $11 per vehicle cost of improving each vehicle outweighed its social benefits and deemed the improvement “not cost-effective for society.” Using a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the total cost of death in a car accident was estimated at around $200,000 per person. Based on the number of burn deaths and injuries involving automobiles per year, the monetary benefit of improvement of the Pinto to society would have been about $50 million, while cost to Ford to make an $11 improvement on every car produced would have been upwards of $137 million. Based on the $87 million dollar difference, Ford decided not to make the improvements to the Pinto, as it already met current government regulations on gasoline tank design.

On May 28, 1972, Mrs. Lily Gray and a thirteen year old boy, Richard Grimshaw, were driving a six month old Pinto on an interstate highway near San Bernardino, CA at a speed of around 55mph. The Pinto stalled and was rear-ended by a Ford convertible. The fuel tank ruptured and the Pinto burst into flames. Gray was burned to death and Grimshaw sustained severe burns and disfigurement on ninety percent of his body, which later required seventy surgeries. As of 1978, at least fifty-three people have died and numerous others have been severely burned in accidents involving Ford Pintos.

Should Ford and other companies be held morally responsible for deaths and injuries associated with using their products? To analyze this question, I will first compare the Ford Pinto to McDonnell-Douglas’ DC-10 aircraft and explain why I feel that Ford can be held more morally responsible for deaths and injuries resulting from Pintos than McDonnell-Douglas can from DC-10, Ship 29 deaths. Then, I will assess the Ford Pinto with regards to Peter French’s Primary Principle of Accountability and Extended Principle of Accountability. Finally, I will assess the Pinto in regards to risk.

The comparison between Ford Motor’s Pinto and McDonnell-Douglas’ DC-10 is a clear one. Both companies created products that complied with Federal Safety Standard Guidelines but failed to meet the engineering standards of the industry with regard to comparable goods. In other words, standards that had yet to be put into Federal mandate but were regularly being used by other companies in manufacture of comparable products in the industries. Both companies were aware that their products were substandard in some ways (with the Pinto it was primarily in the fuel tank design, with the DC-10 it was primarily with the cargo door latching system) and that there was available technology that could have minimized product deficiencies. The manufacture and use of both products by the public resulted in numerous deaths and injuries which may have been prevented, had either company modified its product.

The difference between Ford and McDonnell-Douglas is that the latter sent their product for modifications to FAA guidelines, upon which three separate inspectors stamped the work records indicating that the modifications had been made to the DC-10, Ship 29. Thus, the plane was presumably flown by Turkish Airlines under the auspices that it was not only safe, but modified to be complacent with FAA guidelines. After presumed modification, McDonnell-Douglas could reasonably claim that they believed the safety risks involving the faulty latch had been ameliorated. Prior to the crash, they were ignorant to the fact that these modifications had not, in fact, been made. Thus, they can be cleared of intent to market a product that they knew was defective. Ford, on the other hand, ran a cost benefit analysis to assess the “estimated social costs of death” in comparison to the $11 per vehicle cost of modifications to improve the design of the car. Ford made a corporate decision not to modify the Pinto, and to continue production using the original and unmodified fuel tank design, though well aware of the hazards it posed at speeds over 25mph. Thus, Ford cannot claim ignorance of faulty manufacturing design. They intended to manufacture the car as it was, well aware of the risks the design posed. Peter French’s Primary Principle of Accountability (PPA) states that “a person [or in this case, a company] can only be held accountable for that person’s intentional acts.” Ford had direct intent in manufacturing the vehicle as it was without modification, indirectly leading to conscious manufacture of a potentially unsafe vehicle for public use, McDonnell-Douglas did not. Of course Ford did not intend anyone to die while driving a Pinto, but they did intend to market an affordable vehicle knowing full well that, given the right conditions, serious death or injury could occur.

French’s Extended Principle of Accountability (EPA) states that “A person [or in this case, a company] may be held morally accountable for his intentional actions and for those actions that he was willing to perform under different descriptions of his intentional actions. Also, he may be held accountable for those non-original or second effects that involve the actions of other persons that he was obliquely or collaterally intended or was willing to have occur as the result or under different description of his actions.” As stated above, it is unlikely that Ford manufactured the Pintos with the intention that they crash, the fuel tank ruptures, and the resulting fire causes injury or death to the driver, passengers, or other people involved in a crash. However, it can be argued that a crash at excess of 25mph is much more likely than a crash under 25mph (though admittedly, I could not find statistical information regarding car accidents by speed) and that, given that the fuel tank ruptured every time in lab tests at speeds exceeding 25mph, it would also be likely to rupture should a crash occur at a speed exceeding 25mph in a “real world” setting. Thus, it can be argued that a ruptured fuel tank in a crash at a speed over 25mph was a reasonably foreseeable event, or second effect, that Ford was willing to have occur in their pursuit of producing an affordable car that would be competitive in the new subcompact car market. If Ford was not willing to have this sort of crash occur, they would have made the $11 modification to each vehicle.

Furthermore, not only should Ford have known that marketing a car that was prone to bursting into flames should a crash occur at speeds excessive of 25mph would pose a risk to consumers, they did know, and they chose to place consumer appreciation of an affordable subcompact car over appreciation for their own lives and safety in their cost/benefit analysis. I, for one, feel you would be hard pressed to find an individual who would value the affordable cost of a car over their own life, and when Ford forwent the $11 modifications that would have made Pintos safer, they were essentially putting value in profit and net worth of the company over value of consumer life – a dangerous and presumptuous mistake.

At this point, Ford may argue that a car is nothing more than a machine, and that machines are liable to failure, breakage, and/or user error. It can be presumed that consumers and users of technology, such as cars, on a daily basis are well aware that they are “taking a risk” when they choose to purchase and drive a vehicle. It can be presumed that Ford’s cost benefit analysis statistically showed that sales of Pintos would offset liabilities and costs associated with poor design. French argues that “a reasonable person will accept a certain amount of risk if the compensation is satisfactory.” In this case, the risk would be that they could get in an accident while driving their Pinto, but in the statistically likely event that they do not, their compensation will be getting to their destination at their own convenience, without having to walk, use public transportation, etc. I feel that a reasonable person would probably not weigh the risk to compensation equation the same if they were aware that, in the (still statistically unlikely, but possible nonetheless) event that they were to get into an accident in excess of speeds over 25mph, their fuel tank would almost certainly rupture and the car would be engulfed in flames. This is certainly a higher risk situation (risk of being in a crash vs. risk of being in a crash and the car catching on fire) and consumers cannot be held responsible for proper risk evaluation as the information Ford had elaborating on safety information was very unlikely to have been available to the public. If it had been, I doubt Ford would have sold very many Pintos, regardless of their affordable cost in comparison to other subcompact cars.

In conclusion, I believe that Ford should be held morally responsible for deaths and injuries associated with the Pinto because they knowingly manufactured and marketed a car to unknowing consumers that posed a higher safety risk to consumers than other similar subcompact type cars, they knowingly chose not to take actions to ameliorate mechanical shortcomings and make a safer car, they ignored the probability of highly foreseeable events that were shown time and time again in the lab to be replicated in the real world, they arbitrarily weighed financial gain as more important that human life, and they held consumers responsible for a risk assessment that they were not provided with enough information to make.

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