U.S. Issues Warning About More Tires

September 2, 2000
By Caroline E. Mayer and Frank Swoboda

As motorists began taking to the highways on one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year, federal safety officials issued a rare warning yesterday about another 1.4 million Firestone tires, saying they could be even more dangerous than the 6.5 million tires the company recalled last month.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it decided to issue a consumer advisory after Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. refused its request, made Wednesday, to expand its recall of 15-inch ATX and Wilderness tires used on sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

The agency told consumers they should consider replacing the tires. Firestone yesterday disputed the government’s findings but agreed to replace the tires at no cost if a customer were concerned about safety.

The announcement added to consumer anxiety about the safety of tires made by Firestone–which has about 200 million tires on U.S. roads today.

“This problem is raising concerns from consumers about all Firestone tires,” said Sean Kane, a partner in Strategic Safety, a safety research firm that analyzes accident data for law firms and other companies. “We are getting lots of e-mail from people who want assurance that their tires are safe, but nobody can give that to them.”

The warning applies to about two dozen models of Firestone tires, most of them sold as replacements for the tires that come as standard equipment on new vehicles. As a result, the 1.4 million tires may be found on any sport-utility vehicle or pickup truck, made by any auto company. In contrast, the bulk of the 6.5 million Firestone tires recalled last month were standard equipment on new Ford Explorers.

Exactly how many of the 1.4 million tires remain on the road was unclear, since many of them were made in the early 1990s and should have been replaced long ago. Firestone estimated yesterday that less than half were still in use.

NHTSA said it continues to investigate all ATX and Wilderness tires, including 16-inch tires that many consumer safety advocates say are as unsafe as the 15-inch tires that have been recalled.

The agency has received nearly 1,500 complaints about the Firestone tires, linking them to 88 deaths and more than 250 injuries in the United States. These figures include four fatalities and 18 injuries attributed to the latest group of tires.

Many of the complaints cite accidents that occurred after the tread separated from the tire.

The investigation could take months, but the agency said it decided to issue its warning after its review of Firestone data indicated a high rate of tread separation in the 1.4 million tires not covered by the recall. In some cases, the warning said, the tread-separation rate may exceed those of the recalled tires, “sometimes by a large margin.”

The agency said it “will act promptly” if it concludes that other tires should be recalled.

NHTSA’s action comes at a critical time for Firestone–just days before it is to face the first of several congressional committees investigating the recall.

A Republican aide at the House Commerce Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, said staffers were “astounded and dismayed” that Firestone refused to expand the recall, while a Democratic aide said Firestone’s reaction was “more laden with denial than concern for the safety of consumers.”

“This really puts the burden on Firestone,” said Joan Claybrook, president of the public-interest group Public Citizen and head of NHTSA during the Carter administration. Congress “may be much more wary” when Firestone officials testify and continue to insist that the recall covers all the problem tires and should not be expanded.

In recent years NHTSA has rarely issued a consumer advisory, and never on a specific product. The only other time government officials can remember the agency issuing such a warning recently was in October 1999, when consumers were alerted that children seated close to side-impact air bags may be at risk of a serious, even fatal injury.

But in this case, said a government official who declined to be named, the agency felt it had to act after Firestone refused to expand its recall. The refusal didn’t “leave us with many choices,” the official said. “We were not far enough along in the investigation to order a recall, but we didn’t want to sit on this information. It was important to get it out to consumers.”

The government action came as Ford Motor Co. continued to try distance itself from Firestone. In a news conference yesterday afternoon, Ford spokesman Jason Vines said “we are very disappointed with Firestone.”

Vines also indicated that Ford may rely less heavily on Firestone in the future as its major tire supplier. “I can say if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that we can’t put all our eggs in one basket.” Firestone currently supplies 36 percent of all Ford’s tires, more than 6 million a year.

Publicity about the recall so far has had a relatively small impact on Explorer sales, according to August sales data, released yesterday. Explorer sales remained at record levels, although slightly below Ford’s expectations.

Brook Lindbert, director for tire and wheel systems at General Motors Corp., said some of the tires cited by NHTSA were installed as original equipment on about 10,000 1991 Chevrolet Blazers. At most, he said, it involved 45,000 tires and he doubted any of them were still on the road today. Lindbert said that only two of 1,400 NHTSA complaints involved the Blazers with the Firestone tires and one of those did not have original equipment tires on it.

NHTSA’s warning also included tires used as original equipment on some 1991-1994 Nissan pickup trucks. A Nissan spokesman said the tires were used on 4×4 SE model pickup trucks with an off-road package. The company estimated that about 100,000 of the tires were installed on fewer than 20,000 of these trucks. “It’s highly unlikely anyone still has these tires on this truck,” said Nissan spokesman Scott Vazin.

NHTSA said that some of the tires were also original equipment on the 1996-1998 full-size Ford F-150 pickup trucks. Ford did not have an estimate of the numbers.

Washington Post Staff Writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.

Checking Your Tires

Most of the tires included in the National Highway Transportation and Safety Board’s advisory yesterday did not come as original equipment; exceptions are listed below.

To find whether your tires are listed, first check the tires’ model number. If it matches the list below, check the 10-character DOT code (it’s on the blackwall side, facing toward the interior of the car, underneath the letter F for Firestone). The first two letters are the plant code.

Tire Line

Size Plant Code Original Installation

  • ATX
  • P205/75R15 VD ’91 Chevy Blazer
  • P225/75R15 HY
  • 30X9.50R15LT VD
  • 31X10.50R15LT VD ’91-’94 Nissan Pickup
  • 32X11.50R15LT VD
  • 31X10.50R16.5LT VD
  • 33X12.50R16.5LT VD
  • Firehawk ATX
  • 27X8.50R14LT VD
  • 235/75R15 (LTP235/75R15) VD
  • 30X9.50R15LT VD
  • 31X10.50R15LT VD
  • 32X11.50R15LT VD
  • 33X12.50R15LT VD
  • 265/75R16LT VD
  • 255/85R16LT VD
  • 31X10.50R16.5LT VD
  • 33X12.50R16.5LT VD
  • ATX 23 Degree
  • 31X10.50R15LT VD
  • 33X12.50R16.5LT VD
  • Widetrack Radial Baja
  • P225/75R15 HY
  • Widetrack Radial Baja A/S
  • 32X11.50R15LT VD
  • Wilderness AT
  • P235/70R16 W2 ’96-’98 Ford F150
  • 33X12.50R16.5LT VD
  • Wilderness HT
  • P255/70R15 VD

SOURCE: Washington Post