Bridgestone – Firestone Tire Defects Probed in 46 Roadway Deaths

August 8, 2000
By Edmund Sanders and Terril Yue Jones

A federal probe into potentially defective Firestone tires escalated Monday into one of the most serious such cases in decades, as investigators more than doubled the possible death toll to 46 and another major tire retailer halted sales. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration predicted that reports of accidents and injuries will continue to rise as the investigation gains more attention and publicity. So far, the safety agency has received 273 complaints arising from the three Firestone tire models in question, sharply higher than just a week ago.

“This thing is gaining momentum very rapidly,” said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the NHTSA. “In the beginning, most of the complaints were from Florida, Texas and California. Now we are getting complaints from all over the country.” Officials at Firestone could not be reached for comment Monday. But the company has said it is confident that its tires are safe. Nevertheless, Firestone is offering customers a credit toward the purchase of replacement tires, based on the age and condition of the old tires.

Also on Monday, Discount Tire, the nation’s No. 3 retail tire chain, said it is joining Sears, Roebuck & Co. in halting sales of certain Firestone tires. At the same time, Nashville-based Firestone Tire Sales was hit with a class-action lawsuit on behalf of drivers nationwide.

The government is requesting that Firestone, a unit of Japanese tire maker Bridgestone Corp., and Ford Motor Co. turn over more than 7,000 pages of documents related to the design and manufacturing of the tires.

The government began its investigation in spring after hearing numerous reports about accidents, blowouts and rollovers caused by tire treads peeling off on Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness models. Most of the complaints involved Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles. In some cases, the tread separation was so severe that the tires completely disintegrated.

“The insidious problem with this is that these tires fail without warning,” said Richard Baumgardner, head of Tire Consultants in Alpharetta, Ga., who was a tire engineer at Firestone for 27 years. “There’s no bulge, there’s no bubble, there’s nothing that the person can see until they’re driving down the road at high speed and the tread starts peeling off.”

Attorneys specializing in auto defects are already calling the Firestone controversy one of the nation’s deadliest tire-defect problems since the 1970s, when the Firestone 500 was recalled after being blamed for 50 deaths.

“I can’t think of any other problem with a specific tire where there have been this many fatalities,” said Don Fountain, an attorney in West Palm Beach, Fla., who said he is preparing to file lawsuits against Firestone and Ford.

Although the Ford Explorer has gained the most attention in the case, the tires are also supplied on some new Ford F-Series pickups, Mercury Mountaineer SUVs and select SUVs and light trucks built by General Motors Corp., Mazda Motor Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co.

Ford has replaced 46,000 Firestone tires overseas–in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and other countries–but so far has taken no formal action in the United States.

“We have teams working around the clock on this,” said Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel. “Rest assured, we are committed to doing what’s right for our customers. Our immediate focus is to resolve the issue for our customers. We will address any legal issues thereafter.”

Experts say that a U.S. recall of the Firestone tires could cost as much as $500 million. Between 12 million and 47 million tires could be involved.

Growing numbers of consumer groups and safety organizations are demanding that Ford replace the tires on its Explorer model, the nation’s top-selling sport-utility vehicle.

Strategic Safety, a Virginia-based research organization, questioned why the auto maker would replace Firestone tires in some countries, but not in the U.S., where costs would probably be far higher.

“Can the American public assume that because of the greater economic effect . . . Ford is unwilling to offer replacement tires in the U.S.?” the group wrote in a letter to Ford President Jac Nasser.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, accused Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone of covering up catastrophic problems with the tires that they’ve known about for at least four years.

“I’m more convinced than ever that this tire should be recalled,” Claybrook said. “It’s been recalled in a number of foreign countries. If they’re doing it there, why aren’t they doing it in the United States?”

Meanwhile, Firestone and Ford face a torrent of lawsuits over the issue, including one suit seeking class-action status, filed Monday in federal court in Florida. The suit seeks to represent drivers nationwide who purchased cars with Firestone ATX, ATX II or Wilderness tires.

Attorneys at Washington, D.C.-based Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll accuse Firestone of putting the lives of million of drivers at risk by failing to fix the defects, which they say the tire company has known about since 1992. The suit also names Ford.

A Ford spokeswoman said the auto maker has been named as a co-defendant with Firestone in 39 separate lawsuits involving tire separation. Only one case has been tried, and the court ruled in favor of Ford and Firestone, she said.

Tire consultant Baumgardner said that the tires in question are “five times more likely to cause an accident on the rear tires as on the front.”

“In the back, when the tire starts to fail, the driver is unable to control the pull of tire, whereas on the front, with power steering in most cases, they can control and respond to the pulling and pushing of the tire,” he said.

“My feeling is that it’s a combination of the vehicle and the tire. It appears that when the tire fails on a Ford Explorer, the vehicle’s more likely to go out of control,” Baumgardner added.

Why on the Explorer? “The basic handling, center of gravity and all of the components when the tire tread begins to peel off and pulls the vehicle off its normal travel path,” he said.

Owners of the tire can call Firestone at (800) 465-1904 for more information.

SOURCE: Los Angeles Times