Accident reports prompt inquiry into another Firestone tire brand

Saturday, September 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – Federal regulators opened an investigation Friday into another line of Firestone tires after receiving reports that they were involved in accidents that killed two people and injured 12.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received 167 complaints about the Steeltex R4S and A/T light truck tires since Aug. 1. The tires are original equipment on Ford F250 and F350 pickups; the Ford Excursion and General Motors' Suburban sport utility vehicles; and GM's G Van, a commercial vehicle.

"The majority of the complaints occurred at highway speeds and allege a blowout, tread separation or other major failure," the agency said in its investigation report.

Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said the tires are used on all 75,760 Excursions and 40 percent of the F-series trucks and Econoline vans. He said Ford is cooperating with the investigation.

Reports of similar problems led Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to recall 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last month. Those tires, standard equipment on the Ford Explorer, have been linked to 101 U.S. traffic deaths and more than 400 injuries.

Bridgestone/Firestone officials say they still have not determined the cause of the problems but have focused their investigation on manufacturing shortcomings at its plant in Decatur, Ill.

The R4S is a mud and snow tire, and the A/T is an all-terrain tire with an aggressive tread. Both are available in 15-, 16- and 16.5-inch sizes.

The highway safety administration had no estimate of how many of the tires have been produced. Bridgestone/Firestone did not respond to repeated requests for a total.

Bridgestone/Firestone officials issued a written statement stressing the investigation "is not a finding of a defect but rather is a process to determine the facts surrounding complaints that have been filed with NHTSA."

Spokeswoman Anitra Budd said the company "will continue to have a policy of being open and responsive" to the highway safety agency.

The agency has seen a surge in tire complaints since the Firestone recall was announced.

"Obviously, there's certainly a heightened sense of awareness about tire problems, and we've seen an increase of complaints across the board," said an agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "However, this increase is much more significant than we've gotten with any other brand."

NHTSA's investigation report showed a total of 169 complaints involving the Firestone tires since Jan. 1, 1998, with all but two occurring in the last two months.

GM spokesman Greg Martin said the company had received "no reports or any information that suggests any problems with these tires."

Ford was harshly criticized after the Firestone recall was announced because it acknowledged ordering its own recall of the same tires in 16 other countries after receiving reports of problems. The foreign recalls began more than a year before the U.S. recall, but Ford never alerted the highway safety administration.

Bridgestone/Firestone has been criticized for not ordering a recall sooner, even though the company's data on claims for injuries and property damage indicated problems with the tires at least as early as 1997.

NHTSA also has been faulted for not being more vigilant in its oversight of the companies.

Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily recalled the 6.5 million tires but balked at the agency's request to add 1.4 million more. The agency issued a consumer advisory for those tires on Sept. 1, saying they had a high failure rate and could pose a safety problem.

The agency opens investigations with a preliminary inquiry to gather information from the manufacturer. That can lead to an engineering analysis, where government engineers examine the product. That is the stage of the investigation into the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. An investigation can eventually lead to a recall.