The Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s demonstrates vividly that focusing on commercial pursuits at the expense of integrity considerations can have a disastrous effect on consumer safety. No historical survey of organizational ethics and decision-making is complete without a study of the controversial production of this vehicle.
The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car made and sold by Ford Motor Company from 1970-1980. The design of the car left it vulnerable to fire in the event of a rear-end collision due to the location of the fuel system between the rear axle and rear bumper. Though crash testing indicated heightened risk, and safety was questioned by some engineers, Ford proceeded with manufacturing the vehicle as designed. As early as 1973, Ford began receiving reports of catastrophic injuries in fires after rear-end collisions at low speeds in Pintos. Relying on standard review routines, Ford found no justification for a recall. Issues with the Pinto’s safety and continued non-action on the part of Ford continued until Ford finally recalled the Pinto in 1978, while claiming it was only doing so due to public outcry and still not acknowledging any design defect in the car. Subsequently over 100 lawsuits were brought against Ford in connection to the Pinto.
This is perhaps the seminal case of business choices to value commercial interests over consumer protection. Individual designers and engineers at Ford realized that the Pinto could have safety issues, but they worked under immense time pressures and in a structured, hierarchical project management system where people made decisions that were disconnected from the ultimate outcome of the product. The production of the Pinto was a process dominated by routines that emphasized expediency and profit. Relaxed regulations due to political pressures on the marketplace meant that companies like Ford Motor Company could choose whether it was economical or expedient to meet certain standards rather than making these decisions based on regulatory requirement or safety concerns alone.
The Ford Pinto case also lays bare the “bad apples” theory of ethics, in which corporate scandals that harm the public are often blamed on a bad person doing bad things. In reality, most people involved in these situations are good people who do not intend to do bad things, but make choices in isolation or under duress, as part of routines, which have a knock-off effect and can lead to disastrous results later.
For a very complete and powerful contemporary analysis of the Ford Pinto case, Mark Dowie’s 1977 Pinto Madness article in Mother Jones is a must-read.