1996 Firestone Tests Showed Problems

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional investigators have uncovered testing done by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. in 1996 that showed problems with the tires now under recall and linked to 103 U.S. traffic deaths.

Eight of the 18 Firestone tires pulled off the production line four years ago failed speed tests in which the tires were rotated at 200 mph for 90 minutes at a 90-degree temperature, according to data collected by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who is leading a House investigation into the Bridgestone/Firestone recall.

Seven of the tires were from the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Decatur, Ill., Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said.

Bridgestone/Firestone last month recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Thousands of people have reported problems with the tires, usually tread separations.

Bridgestone/Firestone said last week it has narrowed its investigation to manufacturing processes at the Decatur plant and design specifications of the size of tires now under recall.

``It's clear to us from internal documents that someone at Firestone had to know they were having serious problems with these tires as early as 1996,'' Johnson said.

Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Julia Sutherland said the problem in the 1996 testing did not involve tread separation but a failure on the sidewall near the rim. She said a chemical compound change was made in 1997 to correct the problem.

``It was not a tread separation issue, and it was not a failure that we saw in the real world, but one we saw in tests and we corrected it,'' she said.

On Tuesday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that 800 more complaints about the tires — for a total of 2,226 — have come in this month, bring the number of fatalities reported to 103 and the injury reports to more than 400. That's up from 88 deaths and more than 250 injuries on Aug. 31.

Most of the accidents with the recalled tires involved rollovers of the Explorer, Ford Motor Co.'s top-selling sport utility vehicle. Firestone tires are standard equipment on the Explorer.

Documents turned over to House investigators show Ford has settled 17 cases involving the Firestone tires for about $4 million and Firestone has settled 14 cases for about $12 million, Johnson said.

Leaders of the congressional investigations are trying to get new auto safety legislation on the books before Congress recesses for the year next month.

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved a bill sponsored by its chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would require automakers and their suppliers to share more safety information with the federal government and significantly strengthen penalties for those that withhold key data.

McCain said it was ``an imperfect piece of legislation'' but added that because of the rising death toll it is important for Congress to act.

``There are some differences that we may have, particularly as far as criminal penalties,'' McCain said, adding there is a ``strong possibility that we could get some action before Congress goes out of session.''

Tauzin and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., will present their bill at a House Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday. It also aims to help NHTSA get more safety information.

Upton, chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, and Tauzin, chairman of the consumer protection subcommittee, will hold a separate hearing Thursday to examine testing of the tires done by Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford.

Johnson said Ford's testing data do not show the automaker ever tested the recalled tires on the Explorer at its recommended pressure of 26 pounds per square inch.

Bridgestone/Firestone recommends the tires be inflated to 30 psi and has suggested Ford's lower recommendation may have been a factor in accidents involving the Explorer.

Ford has said it recommended the same pressure for Goodyear tires used on the Explorers from 1995 to 1997 and has received far fewer reports of rollovers. The automaker also has said it tested the tires at 26 pounds on the Explorer, but Johnson said the committee has received no data showing such tests were done before last year.

Ford officials did not return calls seeking comment.

In another development, Continental General Tire announced Tuesday it would replace for free about 160,000 tires that can lose part of their tread. About 140,000 of the 16-inch ContiTrac AS tires were original equipment on about 38,000 1998 and 1999 model year Lincoln Navigators made by Ford Motor Co. Another 20,000 were sold as replacement tires.

Continental said warranty and claims data show 62 of the tires have lost sections of tread when exposed to heat.


On the Net:

Bridgestone/Firestone: http://www.bridgestone-firestone.com

Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com

Continental General Tire: http://www.conti-online.com

Lincoln: http://www.lincolnvehicles.com

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov