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FORD may be replacing Firestones with faultier tires


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The head of a committee investigating tire safety came under fire Tuesday for claiming Ford Motor Co. is replacing Firestone tires with other brands that fail more often, but refusing to name the other brands.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Commerce Committee, disclosed at a hearing that congressional investigators have analyzed the failure rates of replacement tires Ford is using and found some fail more often than the Firestone Wilderness AT tires Ford recalled last month. The replacement tires are made by Michelin, Continental, Goodyear, General, BF Goodrich and Uniroyal.

``Ford is going to replace these recall tires with tires that have a worse claims history than some of the tires that are coming off the Explorers,'' Tauzin said.

He said House investigators have learned that one of the replacement tires has a claims rate of 124 per million tires, well in excess of the five claims per million rate that Ford cites in its recall.

``Are we going to be replacing worse tires for the tires that come off these cars?'' he asked.

Tauzin refused to make his data public, saying he wanted federal highway safety officials to take 30 days to look at the information.

``Mr. Chairman, we shouldn't be waiting 30 days,'' said Jacques Nasser, chief executive of Ford. ``If that data you have is accurate, we should be acting in 30 minutes. ... The data you have _ which no one else seems to have _ if you have it and it's accurate, we'll act on it.''

Nasser did not say what Ford would do if Tauzin's data is correct.

Ford does not have access to the same information because tire makers keep their property damage claims rates confidential. The Commerce Committee has been collecting that information from tire makers for several months.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., asked Tauzin to release the data immediately, saying he and others who replaced Firestone tires need to know the new tires are safe.

``I want to make sure if I replaced them, I replaced them with good tires,'' Stupak said. ``I think we're misleading the American public if we say we're replacing them with worse tires, but yet we're not getting the data.''

Ford officials previously said they asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the replacement tires they planned to use and the agency did not raise any safety concerns. But Tauzin noted NHTSA never approved any of the tires that Ford decided to use.

``How can you justify replacing a tire that fails 15 out of a million with a tire that has a claims rate failure of 124 out of a million and are we going to be in another cycle of recall later on?'' Tauzin said.

``We can't justify it if the facts are right,'' Nasser said.

The Wilderness AT has been at the center of a nearly yearlong debate over the safety of Firestone tires. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s voluntary recall of 6.5 million tires last August included the 15-inch version of the Wilderness AT, made at its plant in Decatur, Ill.

The company insisted that other sizes of the tire made at other plants were safe. But last month Ford said it was concerned about safety and announced it would replace all 13 million Wilderness ATs still on its vehicles.

A day earlier, aware of the impending announcement, Bridgestone/Firestone ended its 96-year relationship with Ford.

The Wilderness AT has been standard equipment on the Ford Explorer, the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle. Many of the 203 fatal accidents among the thousands of crashes reported to the highway safety administration in the last year were rollovers of the Explorer that occurred after the tires failed.

Ford insists the problem is the result of flawed tires, but Bridgestone/Firestone says the design of the Explorer also is a factor.

Nasser blamed the problem on the tires. He said Bridgestone/Firestone's tests showing the Explorer to be part of the problem were unreliable and ``not based on facts.''

``The Ford Explorer is and always will be a safe vehicle,'' Nasser said.

John Lampe, chief executive of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., said Ford's tests were ``grossly unscientific and must be disregarded.''

``We have had a growing and ultimately overwhelming conviction that tire design and manufacturing issues alone simply cannot account for what has been happening to the Explorer,'' Lampe said in a prepared statement.

Lawmakers called on NHTSA to quickly finish its investigation. ``We have a corporate schoolyard brawl breaking out here,'' said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. ``We need an independent referee.''

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