Safety Experts: Widen Tire Recall

Tuesday, August 15th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) — Safety advocates and attorneys suing Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. accused the companies Monday of dangerously limiting the size of a Firestone tire recall, and urged them to broaden it.

Company officials said their actions were sufficient and that the overwhelmingly majority of complaints were from the tires being recalled.

Bridgestone/Firestone said last week it would recall all of the P235/75R15 size radial ATX and ATX II tires, and Wilderness AT tires of the same size made in Decatur, Ill.

The 6.5 million 15-inch tires in question — most of which were installed on Ford trucks, notably the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle — are being investigated by federal officials in connection with more than 300 accidents and the deaths of at least 46 people.

But the advocates and attorneys say the same problems that have been reported with the 15-inch tires affect all versions of the three tire models.

``The public can afford no further delay in getting these tires off the road,'' said Joan Claybrook, head of the group Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone said their data shows the problems are limited to the models under recall.

Ford replaced a wider range of tires for Explorer owners in the Middle East and Venezuela after similar complaints, including 16-inch sizes, but said problems there were related to misuse — deflating the tires to drive on sand, for example.

Most of the reports of tire failure have involved tread separating from the tire, sometimes at high speed, causing blowouts and rollovers. Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have not offered a theory for the failures, but have said hot weather plays a role.

Claybrook charged that too many unanswered questions remain about the safety of Bridgestone/Firestone's 16-inch tires. She contended that the problem is a design defect, not poor manufacturing practices or hot climates.

Appearing with Claybrook was Ralph Hoar, whose legal consulting firm in Arlington, Va., focuses on product safety, and C. Tab Turner, an Arkansas lawyer who has sued Ford and Firestone over tire safety issues.

``Anyone and any group can make unsubstantiated allegations, but the data ... shows the tires are good quality tires with a good record of safety,'' said Christine Karbowiak, vice president of public affairs for Bridgestone/Firestone.

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said the recall as it stands was comprehensive enough to cover the flawed models. He pointed to data collected by Bridgestone/Firestone and processed by Ford showing that the vast majority of complaints about Firestone tires are concentrated in the models and sizes that Bridgestone/Firestone have recalled.

``We're looking for solutions for our customers. These groups are looking for lawsuits,'' Harmon said.

According to the data analysis by Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone collected 2,030 claims for P235/75R15 tires made between 1991 and 2000, nearly 15 times more claims than for Firestone tires of any other size. Of those failures, 1,864 claims involved ATX tires, while 166 involved Wilderness tires. More than 70 percent of the complaints from ATX tires alleged tread separation.

Firestone's data found only seven other tire sizes that had more than 30 claims from 1991 to 2000. Three of those were 16-inch tires, while four were 15-inch tires.

The data shows complaints on ATX tires spiked for those made in Decatur between 1994 and 1996. For those years, the rate of complaints was between 350 and 620 claims per million tires.

The same years' production at other plants had a complaint rate of 100 per million tires or less.

While the claims rate for Wilderness tires is lower, the data also showed that Wilderness tires produced in Decatur in 1996 or 1997 had a complaint rate far higher than Wilderness tires produced in other plants.

Wilderness tires from Decatur in 1996 had a claims rate of 66 claims per million tires — ten times higher than Wilderness tires made at other plants. The claim rate for 1997 Decatur Wilderness tires is 34 claims per million, while the rate for all other plants is one per million.

Between 1994 and 1996, United Rubber Workers union members were on strike at the Decatur plant, and Bridgestone/Firestone used replacement workers and managers.

Bridgestone/Firestone said Monday there was no evidence the strike had affected tire quality, and noted that the plant has won quality awards from Ford and other automakers.

United Steelworkers Local 713 vice president, which represents the Decatur workers, said: ``I can't imagine deliberately putting tires out the door that could be unsafe,'' said union vice president Randy Gordon.

Four states — Texas, Arizona, California and Florida — were the source of 80 percent of the ATX tread separation claims; 90 percent were concentrated in 11 southern states.

For people outside those states, ``the chances of this happening based on what's happened in the past 10 years ... are beyond extremely remote,'' Harmon said.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon filed suit Monday against Bridgestone/Firestone, saying the company's plan to stagger the recall violates the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act. South Carolina had been slotted for the third stage of the recall.

Other attorneys general are considering lawsuits as well, including those in Ohio, New York, North Carolina and Nevada.

Karbowiak said she could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but said the company had told Condon that South Carolina residents did not have to wait to get their tires checked out.

``Anyone who had a concern about their tires should visit their Firestone service center, and we would make them happy,'' she said.


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