The Ford Pinto and the Price of Life

Back in the 1960’s, the Ford Motor Company faced strong competition in America’s small-car market. To fight the competition of Volkswagen and Japanese manufacturers, Ford rushed the development of its newest small car, the Ford Pinto.

Ford Pinto

During production, Ford engineers discovered a major flaw in the car’s design. In rear-end crash tests, the Pinto’s fuel system would rupture extremely easily. Despite this hazardous defect, Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway.

Safety proved not to be a major concern in the development process. The development specifications for the Pinto were that it “was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not cost a cent over $2,000.” Studies of Pinto accident reports revealed:

if a Pinto being followed at over 30 miles per hour was hit by that following vehicle, the rear end of the car would buckle like an accordion, right up to the back seat. The tube leading to the gas-tank cap would be ripped away from the tank itself, and gas would immediately begin sloshing onto the road around the car.

The buckled gas tank would be jammed up against the differential housing (the large bulge in the middle of the rear axle), which contains four sharp, protruding bolts likely to gash holes in the tank and spill still more gas.

Now all that is needed is a spark from a cigarette, ignition, or scraping metal, and both cars would be engulfed in flames. If a Pinto was struck from behind at higher speed say, at 40 mph chances are very good that its doors would jam shut and its trapped passengers inside would burn to death.

The financial analysis that Ford conducted on the Pinto concluded that it was not cost-efficient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaw.

Benefits derived from spending this amount of money were estimated to be $49.5 million. This estimate assumed that each death, which could be avoided, would be worth $200,000, that each major burn injury that could be avoided would be worth $67,000 and that an average repair cost of $700 per car involved in a rear end accident would be avoided. It further assumed that there would be 2,100 burned vehicles, 180 serious burn injuries, and 180 burn deaths in making this calculation. When the unit cost was spread out over the number of cars and light trucks which would be affected by the design change, at a cost of $11 per vehicle, the cost was calculated to be $137 million, much greater then the $49.5 million benefit.

Of course, these figures were wholly inaccurate and based on many assumptions. Still, I believe Ford’s ‘cost-benefit analysis’ was the first time that a monetary value had been placed on human life.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began investigating the case shortly after the Pinto was produced. It discovered that “a large and growing number of corpses taken from burned cars involved in rear-end crashes contained no cuts, bruises or broken bones. They clearly would have survived the accident unharmed if the cars had not caught fire.”

By 1972, the NHTSA’s research had gone on for four years, in which time “nearly 9,000 people burned to death in flaming wrecks. Tens of thousands more were badly burned and scarred for life. And the four-year delay meant that well over 10 million new unsafe vehicles went on the road, vehicles that will be crashing, leaking fuel and incinerating people well into the 1980s.” It wasn’t until May of 1978 that Ford followed the NHTSA’s demand and agreed to recall 1.5 million Pintos for a “safety related defect.”

The Ford Pinto disaster is a chilling example of corporate unaccountability in action. Although they had foreknowledge of the hazardous flaw and anticipated the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, they still decided that it simply was not profitable to make the cars more safe. This is a telling illustration of a corporation’s mindset; the public good is of little concern unless it coincides with profits.