FIRESTONE requests government investigation into Explorer

Friday, June 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government should investigate the safety of the Ford Explorer, says Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s chief, who claims a steering problem may be at fault in hundreds of rollover accidents involving his company's tires.

John Lampe, the tiremaker's chief executive officer, gave Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta a lengthy report Thursday in which the company contends that the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle is harder to handle than some of its competitors when a tire fails.

Lampe acknowledged past problems with the company's now-recalled tires, but said investigators must consider whether the Explorer played a role in the rollover accidents triggered by a tire failure.

``All vehicles have spare tires because tires can lose air. Tires can loose tread. It is a foreseeable problem,'' Lampe told reporters after meeting with Mineta. ``What we are concerned about is when something like this happens, a person should be able to pull over and not roll over.''

The government's auto safety agency has the information under review, said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford's John Rintamaki reaffirmed the automaker's position that the accidents are the result of faulty tires.

``You can talk about testing data endlessly,'' he said. ``We are replacing Firestone Wilderness AT tires because they have elevated rates of tread separation in the real world. Real world data also show the Explorer is among the safest vehicles on the road.''

Ford announced last week that it was replacing all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles because they fail more often than other tires.

Bridgestone/Firestone has released information critical of the Explorer since the announcement. The tire maker claims its products are safe and Ford's replacements are unnecessary.

The 13 million tires were not included in Bridgestone/Firestone's August 2000 recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.

Federal regulators are investigating those tires to see if the recall is broad enough. At least 174 U.S. traffic deaths and more than 700 injuries have been reported as part of the investigation, most involving rollovers of the Explorer, which used the tires as standard equipment.

The author of the new report for Bridgestone/Firestone said he tested the steering in the Explorer and two comparable SUVs _ the Jeep Cherokee and the Chevy Blazer _ as well as the Explorer with Goodyear tires.

``This is a vehicle problem, not a tire problem,'' Dennis Guenther, a mechanical engineering professor at Ohio State University, said in a statement. ``The vehicle performs the same following tread separation on the Goodyear tire as it does with the Firestone tire.''

Guenther, who has worked for Ford and other automakers, tested all the SUVS with four good tires and then with one tire _ the left rear _ with a tread separation. He also tested the vehicles with light and heavy loads.

Guenther said the Explorer is most likely to experience an ``oversteer'' condition when the left rear tire fails. The left rear tire failed most often in the Explorer rollovers involving Firestone tires.

Engineers design passenger vehicles so they ``understeer'' when the driver turns the wheel. That prevents the back end from spinning wide, allowing for a more controlled turn.

To compensate, car designers can adjust springs, shocks, the frame, tires, weight or other properties.

Congress plans to hold hearings on the safety of the tires and Explorer after returning from a break next week.