Agency Missed Early Tire Warnings

.. ncluded in the 1.4 million covered by the advisory a variety of 15 and 16-inch tires but only if consumers requested the change. Of the 148 deaths, NHTSA said 121 were reported directly to the agency, while the remainder were uncovered by Ford, Firestone and State Farm Insurance Co. in the course of the investigation. There also have been reports of 53 deaths deaths linked to the tires and Explorers in the Middle East and Venezuela.

Firestone Narrows Flaw Probe By Caroline E. Mayer and James V. Grimaldi Washington Post Staff Writers Wednesday, September 13, 2000 ; Page A01 A top Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. executive told Congress yesterday that the company has narrowed its search into what caused defects in the 6.5 million tires it recalled last month to two prime suspects: the unique design required to meet Ford Motor Co.’s specifications and variations in the manufacturing process at its Decatur, Ill., plant. The testimony of John Lampe, Firestone’s executive vice president, was the first time the tiremaker has acknowledged that the problems with ATX and Wilderness tires, used mainly on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles, could be attributable to a manufacturing or design defect. Up to now, Firestone officials have said the tires failed because consumers didn’t take care of them properly.

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The tires have been linked to 88 deaths and 250 injuries in the United States. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Lampe also laid some of the blame for the accidents that led to the recall on Ford. We firmly believe . . .

that the tire is only part of the overall safety problem shown by these tragic accidents, he said. Lampe said the automaker’s decision to set its air-pressure recommendation at a level lower than Firestone officials advised left little safety margin to guard against overloading the vehicle. Ford gives us requirements for the tire, and we design around those requirements, Lampe said after the hearing. We have been exploring a theory that the design specifications were too intolerant for small variations in manufacturing. Ford spokesman Jason Vines fired back last night: We set the specifications, but we don’t tell them how to build tires. It’s up to the manufacturers to build them.

It’s amazing that when push comes to shove, Firestone is abdicating its responsibility of being a tire manufacturer. Even more stinging to Ford, Lampe suggested during the hearing that there may be something inherently wrong with the Explorer’s design that makes the vehicle highly susceptible to rollovers after a tire has failed. In most cases a vehicle that experiences a tire failure can be brought safely under control. However, we have seen an alarming number of serious accidents from rollovers of the Explorer after a tire failure, Lampe said. To underscore his point, Lampe added that federal data shows that there have been over 16,000 rollovers with the Ford Explorer, causing 600 deaths. The tire failure has been involved in only a very, very small percentage of these deaths. In her testimony, Sue Bailey, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said, as she has before, I think we’re dealing with a tire problem, backing up Ford’s oft-repeated contention that the recall involved a tire problem, not a vehicle problem.

But she added that as part of this investigation we’ll explore the possibility of a combination of tire and vehicle problems causing the accidents. She said the Explorer is part of the ongoing investigation because we are concerned about the rollover capability. The gulf between the two companies–which have been doing business for nearly 100 years–only widened when Ford’s chief executive, Jacques Nasser, testified after Lampe. He took Firestone to task for failing to share critical claims data with Ford that could have pointed out problems as early as 1998. This is not the candid and frank dialogue that Ford expects in its business relationships, Nasser said. Sen. Ernest F.

Hollings (D-S.C.) characterized the deteriorating Ford-Firestone relationship: It’s like tying two cats by the tail and throwing them over the clothesline and letting them claw each other. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, said there was plenty of blame to go around–even for Congress, which sometimes interferes with government regulators in the prosecution of their duties. He said he is asking the inspector general of the Transportation Department to review NHTSA’s handling of the recall investigation and determine if had enough resources to do its job. McCain said he hoped to rush limited legislation through Congress before it adjourns in a few weeks to give federal safety regulators authority to get information about possible defects faster.

Reps. W.J. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairmen of two House Commerce Committee subcommittees that held a joint hearing on the issue last week, plan to introduce similar legislation today. It is awfully late, but I’d be awfully surprised if something didn’t happen, Tauzin said in an interview. When Congress wants to act, we can act. I think everyone wants to act.

At the same time, McCain said he is writing a letter to urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to drop a provision, now in the funding bill in conference committee, that would bar NHTSA from implementing a system to rate the rollover propensity of SUVs until further study. Carmakers have criticized the rating system as being scientifically unsound, but Nasser agreed to McCain’s request yesterday to work with regulators to implement an appropriate rating system without the further delay of a study. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater testified that NHTSA is paying more attention to tire safety, shifting $1.8 million to the recall investigation. The department also will ask Congress for permission to shift another $9 million of the agency’s funds so it can improve its database, hire 30 more investigators and update tire-testing procedures.

One point of contention between Ford and Firestone has been the proper air pressure for the Explorer’s tires. Firestone’s Lampe said Firestone originally had agreed with Ford’s mandate that the tires be inflated to 26 pounds of pressure per square inch. The Washington Post reported last month that Ford chose 26 psi to reduce the vehicle’s propensity to roll over. Problems can occur if and when the air pressure drops below the originally specified level, Lampe said. The entire issue of tire inflation pressure selected by the vehicle manufacturer must be addressed. Does that pressure provide adequate safety margin to guard against damage caused by underinflation and overloading? Lampe said Firestone now recommends that tires on Explorers be inflated to 30 psi. Firestone officials said they made that recommendation recently, before the recall was announced Aug.

9. Ford officials say it was only a day or so before the recall. Staff writers Greg Schneider and Cindy Skrzycki contributed to this report. Bibliography firestone.