Firestone recall spurs regulatory push

Wednesday, September 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater urged Congress on Tuesday to give federal safety inspectors broad new powers because of the Firestone tire case. Among other things, he seeks access to overseas product data, manufacturer warranty claims and insurance claim information. "We must look to the future and guard against any repetition of tragedy caused by defective vehicles or equipment,'' said Slater, whose National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been criticized for not investigating Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. earlier. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee to examine the Aug. 9 recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT Tires, which are used on Ford trucks and SUVs, particularly the popular Ford Explorer. The NHTSA says 88 U.S. deaths may be linked to the tires. The agency has warned that 1.4 million more Firestone tires also are dangerous and should be replaced. Bridgestone/Firestone disputes that claim. McCain said he had serious questions about when Ford and Firestone knew they had problems. "The mounting evidence is making it increasingly difficult to credibly believe that neither of these companies knew anything of this problem before this summer,'' McCain said. Although lawsuits have been filed in the last 10 years alleging tread separation problems on Firestone tires, NHTSA did not open an investigation until May. The agency has said Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford did not tell it about complaints regarding the tires, including overseas problems. Ford started a Firestone tire recall in 16 foreign countries more than a year before the U.S. recall started. Companies are not obligated to report foreign complaints, and Ford did not alert NHTSA. Slater wants manufacturers to be required to report their product warranty, adjustment and claims information to safety officials, along with reports on potential defects found in overseas markets. Insurers also should be required to give safety regulators claims information, he said. "NHTSA needs stronger investigative authority to get the data it needs,'' Slater said. He also asked for extra funding for safety regulators and improved cooperation with foreign governments and safety organizations, saying "greater interaction with foreign safety agencies will help us get an early warning of problems before they occur here.'' Two of the regulatory changes that NHSTA requested were included in a bill to be introduced Tuesday by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. The bill would increase penalties that NHSTA could impose for failing to report safety defects. It also would increase tire manufacturers' obligation to provide free repairs for defective products from three years to five years. The bill also would require auto and tire manufactures to report foreign recalls, require NHTSA to update its tire standards and require tire makers to periodically report legal claims to NHSTA. The measure grew out of House and Senate hearings last week at which Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono apologized for the tire problems. Ford CEO Jac Nasser promised Ford would now notify U.S. officials when it makes any safety changes overseas. Both men were expected to testify again Tuesday. In a separate case, Ford was accused last month by a California judge of deceiving federal safety investigators and consumers in a probe of an ignition system problem that allegedly made vehicles prone to stalling. The judge said he may order the recall of as many as 2 million vehicles in California stemming from a lawsuit over the allegations. Ford denied the allegations. A hearing is set for Sept. 28. On Monday, the House Commerce Committee released some of the documents it had collected in its investigation of the tire case. Ford says its recommendation for inflation pressure on Firestone tires had nothing to do with safety problems, but documents show at least some company officials weren't so sure. For foreign and domestic customers, Ford suggested lower tire pressure than what Bridgestone/Firestone recommended, saying it would improve the ride. Critics have said the move was to try to limit the possibility of rollovers among certain Ford vehicles that come with the tires, notably the Explorer. An internal Ford document marked as a draft and dated July 8, 1999, expressed concern that the lower pressure recommended in Venezuela might have contributed to tread detachments. Other factors listed included high temperatures, improper repairs, off-road use, extended high-speed travel and overload. The memo was dated 10 months before Ford issued a recall of the tires in Venezuela, where 46 fatalities have been linked to the tires, and more than a year before a U.S. recall of the tires. A Ford chart dated May 5, 2000, shows that when the Venezuelan tires were tested at 28 pounds per square inch they were less safe than tires inflated to 30 pounds, the level recommended by Bridgestone/Firestone. Another Ford document, dated May 24, 2000 – three weeks after the U.S. government opened an investigation into the tires – was nearly identical to the June 1999 document but omitted the paragraph that referred to tire pressure. Ford officials did not returns phone calls seeking comment but have insisted that problems with the tires were not due to pressure recommendations.