PHOENIX (AP) â€” Arizona Department of Public Safety officers were so worried about tread-separation blowouts and accidents involving Firestone truck tires that the agency's director in 1998 ordered them replaced on all DPS vehicles.
But the agency didn't tell federal regulators or alert the public. And according to interviews and agency documents obtained by The Associated Press, the agency agreed to categorize its concerns as ``customer dissatisfaction'' rather than safety when it accepted the tire maker's $42,000 credit toward future purchases.
Consumer advocates and federal officials say the DPS's silence may have slowed the response to what has become a national safety matter involving hundreds of accidents and more than 100 deaths attributed to Firestone tire failures.
``Everybody would have been better off if all along a very bright light had been shone on this problem,'' said Grant Woods, who was the state's attorney general at the time. ``It seems that they took a very short-term, practical approach to this and didn't look at the safety ramifications. It's one thing for a private citizen to do it. It's another for a government agency to do it. A government agency shouldn't do it.''
Former DPS director Joe Albo, who ordered the switch to Goodyear tires, said the agency did tell the state Department of Administration's Risk Management Section about its tire problems. But no one from the state filed any complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to the federal agency's records.
The Department of Administration ``looked at it and decided, for whatever reason, it wasn't a risk management issue,'' Albo said. ``I didn't view it at the time as a product liability issue.''
Gov. Jane Hull's spokeswoman, Francie Noyes, said the administration is reviewing the agency's response.
``We've just become aware of the issues you raise and we're looking into it,'' Noyes said.
The AP reported in September that Arizona's problems with tread separations, blowouts and accidents involving Firestone tires started at least as early as 1996, when the state notified the manufacturer of its concerns. The company inspected hundreds of tires, including some from DPS, but denied any problems and suggested they were being used improperly.
Among the tires the Arizona agencies complained about were some of the models that recently became part of a voluntary Firestone recall plus a NHTSA consumer safety advisory and safety investigation.
In 1997 and 1998, DPS officers were involved in at least five accidents caused by tread separations, according to agency documents. One accident, a rollover, left an officer with head injuries.
Most of the DPS problems involved Firestone Steeltex models. The tires are now under investigation by federal regulators. They are not part of Firestone's recall of about 6.5 million Radial ATX, Radial ATXII and Wilderness AT tires.
The AP first reported possible safety problems involving tread-separation blowouts with the Steeltex tires in September.
The AP has since obtained records, including internal memos and letters between DPS and Firestone, and conducted interviews that demonstrate the lengths the agency went to to get rid of the tires on its fleet of trucks and sport utility vehicles two years ago.
One memo contained a handwritten note directing fleet services to ``proceed with replacement of Firestone tires ASAP.''
Albo said he ordered the tires removed from service even though replacements might cost about $210,000.
``I said, 'Look, we need to find a way to deal with Firestone and get them off our vehicles,''' Albo said.
Internal documents show that DPS told employees not to talk about the problems after accepting Firestone's deal.
An Aug. 2 memo from Robert Aguilera, who was deputy director for DPS when the tire problems arose and now works as a supervisor in the agency's Logistics Bureau, also warned employees against speaking openly about the agency's problems with Firestones.
The memo noted that at least one officer was told to persuade a reporter not to write a story about Firestone blowouts on DPS vehicles.
``Our agreement with Firestone, I believe a written one, included their 'buying' back all our Firestone tires with the provision of no public references to us as to any problems,'' Aguilera wrote.
Aguilera told the AP he wrote the memo after being informed of a confidentiality agreement by fleet service manager Mike Fuson, who negotiated the replacement credit with Firestone. Aguilera said he has been unable to find any written agreement with a secrecy clause, which he noted in a follow-up memo.
Fuson said there was no confidentiality requirement but that DPS did accept the manufacturer's wording describing the credit as a customer satisfaction effort.
From that point, DPS could not describe its problems as a safety concern, he said.
DPS eventually acknowledged the accidents and replacements, but offered few details and stressed its tires were not part of the recall.
DPS Director Dennis Garrett said he was unaware of any attempt to hide anything. ``I told our people to give them everything we've got.''
Garrett said he would have shared information such as that contained in interoffice memos outlining safety worries with NHTSA.
``Hindsight being 20/20, I suppose they would have done it differently,'' he said. ``If that was the case, they should have done something.''
NHTSA spokesman Tim Heard said he doesn't know whether a complaint from DPS would have launched an investigation by itself, ``but it would have gotten our attention.''
State agencies like DPS with large fleets of vehicles, skilled drivers and consistent maintenance programs are in the best position to recognize tire safety problems first, said Joan Claybrook, director of Public Citizen and a former head of NHTSA.
``When you have the responsibility of public safety, you always have to be thinking of the public,'' she said. ``My God, it seems like corporate behavior not public behavior.''
On the Net:
Arizona Department of Public Safety: http://www.dps.state.az.us
Public Citizen: http://www.publiccitizen.org
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov
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