NHTSA denies Bridgestone/Firestone request for defect investigation into Ford Explorer

Wednesday, February 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ Barely a month into its restructuring plan, beleaguered Ford Motor Co. is basking in the federal government's decision not to open an investigation into the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday denied a request by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. for a defect investigation into the Explorer.

The tire maker specifically asked for the investigation into the handling and control characteristics of the Explorer following a tread separation of a rear tire, NHTSA said.

The request by the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire company was the latest round in a dispute between it and Ford over the cause of hundreds of deaths and injuries accidents after tread separations in Firestone tires. In some cases the Ford Explorers on which they were installed as original equipment rolled over.

NHTSA said the decision followed ``an extensive analysis of agency data and information provided by Firestone and Ford.''

``The data does not support Firestone's contention that Explorers stand out from other SUVs with respect to its handling characteristics following a tread separation,'' NHTSA administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said in a statement.

``NHTSA has made its determination,'' said Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina. She declined to comment further.

``This is consistent with the real world performance data showing the Explorer to be among the safest of vehicles and NHTSA's previous finding that many Firestone Wilderness AT tires built before 1998 contain a safety defect,'' Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environment and safety engineering, said in a statement.

The head of one leading safety group scoffed at the NHTSA decision, saying it does not prove the Explorer is safe.

``One thing is clear about today's decision. It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with economics,'' said Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center for Auto Safety. ``The agency is more interested in the economic well being of the auto companies.''

The tread separations on Firestone tires have been blamed for 271 deaths and hundreds of injuries, some of which occurred when the Ford Explorers on which they were mounted rolled over.

In August 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone launched the recall of 6.5 million tires after NHTSA found safety defects in some Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Last May, Ford began a $3 billion program to replace the remaining 13 million Wilderness AT tires.

The move resulted in the severing of the almost centurylong relationship between Firestone and Ford.