FEDS prepare to force larger recall of Firestone tires

Friday, July 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal officials are preparing to push Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to broaden its recall of 6.5 million tires, which the company insists are safe. It promises to fight the government's order in court if necessary.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has completed a yearlong investigation into the tires and has determined that some potentially dangerous tires remain on the road.

The agency asked Bridgestone/Firestone to recall more tires during a private meeting Thursday. The company refused, and negotiations ended.

The agency and Bridgestone/Firestone refused to say how large an expanded recall NHTSA is seeking or which tires are involved. The department also would not say when its findings would be announced.

``NHTSA's responsibility is the safety of the American people, and we will adhere to a process that will ensure the recall of unsafe tires,'' the Transportation Department said in a statement. The department oversees NHTSA.

John Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone's chief executive, said he expects that NHTSA's recall order will include two sizes of Wilderness AT tires sold as original equipment on the Ford Explorer. But he said the company has found no safety problems that would have warranted a wider recall.

The company's previous recall included the P235/75R15 size ATX and ATX II tires and the P235/75R15 size Wilderness AT tires made at its plant in Decatur, Ill. Millions more Wilderness AT tires of different sizes are on the road, but Bridgestone/Firestone said it did not know how many.

Ford Motor Co. announced in May that because of worries about the safety of all sizes of the Wilderness AT tires, it would replace all 13 million on its vehicles.

If Bridgestone/Firestone is forced to recall the tires Ford is replacing, the automaker could demand payment to recover the $2.1 billion it spent on the campaign. Ford spokesman Ken Zino said it's too early to say if the company would do so.

Such a move could be devastating for Bridgestone/Firestone, which already has spent more than $900 million on the recall and faces hundreds of lawsuits. The company also is closing its Decatur plant because of lower sales.

Any order for a broader recall from NHTSA would be subject to a public hearing, and a final ruling could be challenged in federal court. Such court challenges are extremely rare and could take years to resolve.

``I don't know how long that litigation would take, and I would frankly hate for it to get to that point,'' Lampe said. ``But if that's what we need to prove our position and make our case, that's what we will do.''

At least 203 deaths and more than 700 injuries have been linked to Firestone tire failures in the United States. Many involved rollovers of the popular Ford Explorer, which used the tires as standard equipment.

Bridgestone/Firestone has admitted problems with the recalled tires but says the Explorer design is partly to blame for the accidents. It has urged NHTSA to investigate the sport utility vehicle.

That claim is strongly rejected by Ford and prompted the automaker to end a centurylong relationship with Bridgestone/Firestone.

NHTSA opened its Firestone investigation more than a year ago and has been reviewing the safety records of more than 55 million tires. NHTSA also has been investigating the safety of the tires Ford is using to replace the Firestones.

NHTSA officials are prepared to tell congressional investigators that most of the replacement tires have no significant safety problems, a source familiar with the investigation said.