What is Going On?

The Firestone tire recall is perhaps the most deadly auto safety crisis in American history. US regulators on 16 October, 2000 have raised the death count to 119 (the death count has steadily risen from 62, later to 88 and 101 deaths reported on 9/20/2000). Experts believe there may be as many as 250 deaths and more than 3000 catastrophic injuries associated with the defective tires. Most of the deaths occur in accidents involving the Ford Explorer which tends to rollover when one of the tires blows out.

In May 2000, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration issued a letter to Ford and Firestone requesting information about the high incidence of tire failure on Ford Explorer vehicles. During July, Ford obtained and analyzed the data on tire failure. The data revealed that 15" ATX and ATX II models and Wilderness AT tires had very high failure rates: the tread peels off. Many of the tires were made at a Decatur, Illinois plant. Worse, when the tires fail the vehicle often rolls over and kills the occupants.

Ford Officials estimate the defect rate is 241 tires per million for 15-Inch ATX and ATX II tires. By contrast Ford says there are no defects in 16 Inch tires per million and only 2.3 incidents per million on other tires.

On August 9 both companies decided on the recall. Ford and Firestone disagreed as to how to break the news. Bridgestone/Firestone officials wanted to read a statement at a joint briefing without answering any questions. Ford strongly disagreed with this strategy and warned of disaster if they refused questions. Ultimately questions were asked, many of them remain unanswered.

Firestone Denies that there is Any Problem.

Bridgestone executives continue to deny problems and downplayed the significance of the failure.

"No specific problem was found with the design or production method of our tires."
Tadakazu Harda, Bridgestone, Vice President of overseas operations
Quoted during a news conference in Japan on 9 August 2000

Indeed Bridgestone still continued to maintain that the tires were not defective. Mr. Harada stated: "judging from the fact that most of the accidents occurred in Southern states, we estimate that driving in high temperate, at high speeds and under tire pressure are factors in these accidents."

Ironically Ford itself countered this suggestion. First, Ford pointed out from 1995 to 1997, a rival company Goodyear also supplied two million tires using the same specifications Firestone was using. Nearly 500,000 were equipped on Ford Explorers with any evidence of failure, according to Ford officials.

Ford's Role: Did they Know?

Ford Motor Company documents indicate that company officials had data that Firestone tires installed on Explorer sport-utility vehicles had little or no margin for safety in top-speed driving at the tire pressures Ford recommended.

The papers were part of a collection of documents that Congressional investigators released before the third round of Congressional hearings investigating Ford's and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s handling of tire failures now linked to more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and other countries.

The documents raise questions about Ford's position that accidents involving the Explorer and Firestone tires aren't related to Ford's recommended tire pressure for the Explorer.

Tire Pressure?

Bridgestone argued that under inflated tires may have played a role in the accidents and stated that a tire pressure of 30 psi was needed.

However, Ford officials believed the tire pressure issue was a red herring. Tire pressure had not emerged as an issue in the data and Ford found that most drivers maintain a pressure at 28-31psi. Furthermore rival Goodyear's recommendation of a lower pressure of 26 psi was maintained with a spotless record. A Ford official quipped: "We decided to drop the Goodyear blimp on them [firestone]."

After August 10 chaos erupted at Ford dealerships as consumers scrambled to replace their tires, Ford Explorer sales plunged. Ford says sales have dipped 6% in August.

Is the Ford Explorer Part of the Problem?

The Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle rolls over more often than other SUV's do in tire-tread accidents, and it has vibration and suspension problems that Ford can't always explain and sometimes can't fix. Those flaws raise the suspicion that the Explorer itself is contributing to the sometimes fatal accidents that forced the Bridgestone/Firestone recall. An internal memo from Ford of Venezuela says that the Explorer "turned over unexpectedly" when Firestone tires lost their treads, but that other SUV's didn't in similar circumstances. About 31% of Explorer complaints cited mysterious vibrations. Many could not be cured, even after dealers changed tires, shock absorbers and drive-shafts. Less frequent is an odd tire-wear pattern called "cupping." It shows up in less than 2% of Explorer complaints, but never shows up in most other Ford truck models.


People in Venezuela also driver Ford Explorers and the Firestone tires equipping that Latin American countries vehicles have been linked to an additional 46 fatalities. Venezuelan officials believe Ford and Firestone knew about the problems with the tires but failed to warn owners until May, 2000, when they quietly began to offer free tire exchanges for Wilderness and ATX tires sold with explorers since 1997.

US lawyers see Venezuela as clear evidence Ford and Firestone had knowledge of the defects months before they took action.


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