Recall May Empower Safety Agency

Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials got the cold shoulder last year when they asked Congress to give them more authority. Now after the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires that may be linked to scores of fatal accidents, lawmakers are virtually tripping over each other trying to help the agency that oversees vehicle safety.

Two bills already have been introduced that would force companies to alert authorities to product safety concerns. Other lawmakers said they were considering legislation aimed at preventing cases like the Firestone tire problem, which NHTSA said may be responsible for 88 deaths in the United States and even more overseas.

Although there were lawsuits, insurance claims and reports of problems with certain Firestone tires around the world during the past decade, officials from NHTSA, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. have said they did not realize they were dealing with a serious problem until this year. Ford uses Firestone tires on many vehicles, including the Explorer.

``It's inexcusable that company executives made a conscious decision not to alert U.S. regulators and the American public to this deadly problem,'' said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. ``We must give NHTSA the money and the power to better track products with dangerous flaws and harshly punish those who knowingly leave regulators in the dark about defects.''

NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey said Friday the agency would make a formal request to Congress next week for more money and authority, including requiring companies to provide product data on foreign recalls, customer claims and legal settlements.

``The fact is that I think it would be very hard for anyone reasonably to determine that manufacturers' self-policing worked well in this case,'' Bailey said.

She said the agency wants to have the request ready by Tuesday, when the Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the recall.

The Clinton administration previously asked Congress to allow NHTSA to collect greater fines from companies that withhold information. The current limit is $925,000; the administration wants it increased to at least $4 million.

The administration made a request for that legislation last fall, but no lawmakers introduced the bill.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported Friday that an analysis of data from the Department of Transportation's Fatality Analysis Reporting System showed that from 1995 through 1998, the most recent year available, fatal crashes involving Ford Explorers were 2.8 times as likely to list tires as a contributing factor as those involving other sport utility vehicles.

Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday she was looking into whether any criminal or civil charges are warranted in the case. A senior Justice official, speaking on a condition on anonymity, said criminal action was considered unlikely and that a civil case would be pursued only if NHTSA referred a case to the department. It has not done so.

Reno's announcement, which came at the request of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., occurred a day after a pair of congressional hearings during which lawmakers pilloried Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford for failing to do more to alert Americans to problems with certain Firestone tires that can suddenly lose their tread or suffer blowouts.

Bridgestone/Firestone officials admitted that the company collected information from 1997 to 1999 that showed the now recalled tires were the source of most property damage and injury claims, but only used the information to determine profit loss, not safety problems.

Ford has come under fire for beginning a Firestone tire recall in 16 foreign countries more than a year before the U.S. recall started. No law required Ford to notify U.S. authorities, and the company did not, believing the problems were related to driving conditions unique to those countries.

Leahy introduced a bill that would require U.S. tire and automakers to notify federal regulators within two days of an overseas recall.

``Timely notice about recalls should not be optional when consumer safety is at stake,'' Leahy said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., introduced legislation to establish criminal penalties for executives who intentionally withhold information on defective products that kill or injure consumers.

Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last month, many of which are original equipment on light trucks and sport utility vehicles made by Ford. NHTSA last week warned an additional 1.4 million Firestone tires also are dangerous and should be replaced.

Bridgestone/Firestone disputes the claim about the additional tires and has changed its policy for customers who have them. Originally, the company said it would replace those tires for free if customers were concerned, but now says to conform to a long-standing policy they will be replaced only if they are defective and covered by warranty. Bridgestone/Firestone will provide free inspections of the tires.

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