GOVERNMENT safety officials open investigation into General tire model

Wednesday, July 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Ford Motor Co. has removed a General tire from its list of approved replacements in its recall of Firestone tires until federal officials finish an investigation into the tire's safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there have been at least 338 claims of tread separation on the P235/70R16 size of the General Ameri.550 AS tire _ the same problem that plagued some Firestone tires and led to last summer's massive recall.

The claims include three crashes, two of them rollovers. There have reports of 17 injuries, but no deaths, the agency said.

More than 2.7 million of the tires have been made, and most were sold as original equipment on the F150 pickup. Ford is not offering to replace tires on those vehicles.

Ford included the tire on its list of more than 60 approved replacements in its May recall of 13 million Firestone tires. The automaker said only about 4,300 of the General Ameri.550 tires have been used as a substitute for the 3 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires that have been replaced so far.

Ford said its testing indicates the tire meets performance and durability requirements, but it would not use it as a replacement ``to alleviate any customer confusion.''

Continental Tire North America Inc., which manufactures the General tire brand, criticized NHTSA for opening an investigation based on claims data. The company said claims are not evidence of a defect.

``We are deeply disappointed that NHTSA has opened this preliminary evaluation and believe the data shows there is no basis for further investigation,'' the tire maker said in a statement. ``We also believe this preliminary evaluation is politically motivated and patently unwarranted and not based on any historical standards for opening an investigation.''

NHTSA's action was triggered by information collected by congressional staffers investigating the safety of Firestone tires.

At a hearing last month, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., announced that some of the tire brands that Ford was using to replace Firestone tires had higher rates of claims for injury and property damage.

He would not name the tires until NHTSA had a chance to review the committee's analysis. NHTSA refused to identify the other 10 lines that it examined but decided not to investigate.

NHTSA said Continental has made several design and production changes to these tires since they were first made in April 1995. NHTSA said the claims rates for tires made after July 1998 were extremely low, and there have been no injuries attributed to those tires.