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Ford said it was taking the extraordinary step of recalling the huge number of tires because it considers them unsafe and the manufacturer, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., refuses to recall them.
"We lack confidence in the performance of any of Firestone's Wilderness AT tires," Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser said. "There are enough warning signs there, and we wanted to act in a precautionary sense."
Bridgestone/Firestone responded immediately, repeating its accusations that Ford has ignored questions about the Explorer.
"No one cares more about the safety of the people who travel on our tires than we do," CEO John Lampe said. "The real issue here is the safety of the Explorer. Ford refused to look at issues surrounding the Explorer in August. Ford failed to do that today.
"We stand by our tires and look forward to the opportunity to show Congress, NHTSA and the American public why our tires are safe and that there are significant safety concerns with the Ford Explorer."
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who held hearings on tire failures last fall, said he would hold follow-up hearings this month to examine Ford's new analysis of the Firestone tires, and the Explorer's design.
Ford officially calls its move an "owner notification program," but Nasser used the word "recall" several times at a news conference at Ford's headquarters in this Detroit suburb.
The company said it has not yet determined how long the replacement will take.
The move covers twice as many tires as last year's recall by Firestone of 6.5 million tires, which took five months to complete. Those tires were deemed dangerous because they lost their treads at high speed, throwing the vehicles, mostly Ford Explorers, out of control. At least 184 people were killed in accidents involving Firestone tread failures.
A Ford analysis of non-recalled Firestone tires prompted Tuesday's recall. Ford looked at real-world tire performance data supplied by Firestone, information on competitors' tires provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Ford's own laboratory and field analyses, Nasser said.
The Wilderness ATs that were not recalled last year are "vastly" better than the ATX tires and Wilderness AT tires from one factory included in last year's recall, said John Rintamaki, Ford's chief of staff.
But compared with the 10 light truck tires made by three non-Firestone manufacturers, the Wilderness AT tires still on the road "exhibited failure rates at what we believe is above the acceptable industry rate," Rintamaki said.
Ford's timing of its recall was prompted by various factors, but the advent of summer was also on executives' minds, and customers in Southern states will be contacted first, spokesman Ken Zino said. Most of the fatal accidents involving Firestone tires were recorded in hot Southern states during summer, and heat buildup is considered one of the factors in the tread separations.
By moving now to begin replacing tires, Ford also is seen as trying to head off a rash of potential fatal accidents--as well as costly lawsuits and further damage to the company's battered image.
The move comes at a time Ford is getting another black eye for its Explorer--this time for the completely redesigned 2002 model that just went on sale.
Ford delayed the launch of the '02 model, which has a lower center of gravity and so has a reduced tendency to roll over, to comb through it and ensure there were no quality problems. But already the new Explorer has been recalled twice: once because of rear gate windows that could break when shut, and an additional 50,000 last weekend because an assembly line that was too narrow accidentally slit the tires.
The tire debacle is also a story of questions that remain unresolved: Why do the tires fail? Why are all of the deaths in sport utility vehicles, mostly Ford Explorers, when some of the tires were installed on pickup trucks? Did Ford put customers' comfort, and the marketability of the vehicle, ahead of safety by choosing tires that would give a softer ride but might be more prone to failure?
Above all, why did Ford or Firestone not recognize sooner that while tire failures and rollovers were serious problems by themselves, the combination of the two would prove especially lethal? With another hearing in Congress scheduled on Tuesday -- and millions of recalled tires still on the road -- the pressure to find answers remains intense.
Early on, Firestone had more information about the extent of the problem than Ford, the documents showed, because it was Firestone's warranty that covered the tires. The tire maker, owned by Japan's Bridgestone Corporation, received more than 1,500 legal claims, many dating to at least 1997, for property damage, injuries and even some deaths resulting from failures among the 6.5 million tires now being recalled. It also had an increased number of requests from consumers to replace tires under warranty.
Yet in response to numerous inquiries from Ford beginning late in 1998, Firestone repeatedly gave the same answer that it and other tire makers had been giving plaintiffs' lawyers for years: Some tires inevitably fail, and the usual culprit is abuse by customers who do not inflate the tires properly or overload the vehicles.
Firestone's engineers took an unusual approach when they went to Venezuela to test suspect tires, according to a memorandum dated Aug. 9, 1999, by the company's manager of market quality engineering, identified as B. V. Halverson. ''During the travel between cities, we drove at speeds up to 95 m.p.h. for extended periods of time,'' the memorandum said, one of dozens of documents coming out of an investigation led by Representative Billy Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana. No tires failed during the test, though government investigators in Venezuela have since attributed at least 46 deaths to crashes involving Firestone tires on Ford Explorers.
Firestone engineers occasionally checked tires in the field. But when Arizona complained in July 1996 that tires on state vehicles were losing treads in hot weather, Firestone blamed poor tire maintenance.
[Yoichiro Kaizaki, president of Bridgestone, acknowledged on Monday at a news conference in Tokyo that Bridgestone had not paid proper attention to quality control of its Firestone tires. He said the company would would begin applying the quality-control criteria used for its Bridgestone tires to Firestone tires.
[There had been dual standards within the company regarding problems with the two brands, he said. ''The responsibility for the problem lies with Tokyo,'' he said.]
The company relied heavily on its warranty information, which showed that while replacements under warranty increased in 1999 over 1998, the frequency of replacements remained fairly low. Firestone has insisted that its safety staff did not look at information on damage claims. Yet its financial staff was calculating that information annually, and even pinpointed by 1998 an increase in claims associated with the models now being recalled -- and particularly with tires from the Decatur, Ill., plant identified as having made the tires with the most problems.
By comparing the records of sales meetings with a confidential government report on Firestone tire production by serial code, it can be calculated that less than four-tenths of a percent of the recalled tires were replaced under warranty in 1998 and 1999. By a comparison, 17 percent of the tires were replaced under warranty in 1978 before Firestone's last major recall, of model 500 car tires. The earlier recall involved a similar number of tires, but fewer than half the 88 deaths under review in the investigation in the United States.
What Firestone appears to have missed is that sport utility vehicles require more reliable tires than cars, because they are more likely to roll over when they lose a tire, documents showed. The rollover issue goes virtually unmentioned in the Firestone documents, yet now the company cites it frequently, even noting that rollovers are an especially deadly kind of crash.
Federal regulations do not suggest that Firestone should have paid closer attention to sport utility tires. Sport utility vehicles have been regulated as light trucks since the late 1960's and face more lenient rules than cars.
A vehicle's ability to withstand crashes from the front, side and rear are regulated, because these are the main causes of deaths in cars. But a vehicle's tendency to roll over is not regulated by the government, though rollovers accounted for 62 percent of deaths in sport utility vehicles.
Federal regulators are now reviewing the rules covering tires and, after 27 years of studying the rollover issue, announced plans last spring to start rating a vehicle's tendency to roll over. Automakers and their allies in Congress are trying to block the ratings.
Among the documents distributed and then uncovered by Mr. Tauzin's investigators, the one that stands out as perhaps the most serious missed opportunity at Ford is a two-paragraph memorandum dated Sept. 15, 1999. Written by Carlos Mazzorin, Ford's group vice president for purchasing, it was addressed to Jacques Nasser, Ford's chief executive and president; Wayne Booker, vice chairman for international operations; and six vice presidents responsible for sales, manufacturing, quality control, vehicle engineering, Asian operations and public relations.
The memorandum described a problem with some Explorers in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Venezuela. The tread sometimes separated from the rest of the tire when the vehicle was driven for long periods at high speeds, Mr. Mazzorin wrote. This had caused 19 rollovers and some deaths in the Middle East, where Ford had just recalled the tires, and an unspecified number of deaths in Venezuela.
But Mr. Mazzorin concluded with a statement that would prove wrong: ''No known instances have occurred in other markets.''
Two executives not on the memorandum's distribution list might have told Mr. Mazzorin that he was wrong, had they received the note and then checked records.
One was John M. Rintamaki, Ford's general counsel; the company had already been included in several lawsuits against Firestone. But Ford paid little attention, because automakers routinely face thousands of lawsuits after crashes.
Also missing from the distribution list was Helen O. Petrauskas, Ford's vice president for safety and environmental issues. Ford's safety engineers, who worked for Ms. Petrauskas, were aware of the rollover issue in sport utility vehicles.
Ford engineers had also paid attention to tires. In designing the Explorer, the engineers had rejected high-pressure tires like those on the rival Chevrolet Blazer -- which might have been less likely to lose their treads -- because they made the Explorer more likely to roll over. For the tires they did select, they recommended inflation pressures lower than for most other sport utility tires.
The New York Times reported on Friday that a computer analysis of federal data on fatal crashes showed that Explorers had a higher proportion of fatal crashes from tire problems than other sport utilities.
But memorandums indicated that as problems with Firestone tires surfaced overseas, Ford engineers, as did the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, looked mainly at other data: consumer complaints to the government agency's toll-free hotline. That data, it turns out, had a flaw: lawyers and their clients had virtually stopped reporting serious incidents with tires.
Lawyers suing tire makers had suffered a setback in February 1995, when regulators closed an investigation into Michelin tires despite 62 consumer complaints.
The safety agency decided that the tires were not defective and accepted Michelin's argument that consumers had overloaded or underinflated the tires -- the same argument that Firestone has made in fighting lawsuits over its tires now recalled. A ruling by a federal agency that a product is not defective usually makes lawsuits against the manufacturer more difficult.
Even as lawsuits against Firestone accumulated in the late 1990's, regulators received very few complaints from the public. Until they opened a preliminary inquiry on March 6, after a report on a Houston television station prompted several dozen complaints, there were no fatal incidents in their files.
Yet a tally released today by SafetyForum.com, a firm that coordinates lawsuits against auto and tire makers, found that lawyers had already sued Firestone, and sometimes Ford as well, in cases involving 22 deaths and 69 serious injuries by the end of 1998.
Ralph Hoar, the owner of SafetyForum.com, said lawyers had a responsibility to their clients, not regulators, and could not take the risk that if they did file enough complaints to prompt an investigation, regulators would rule that the Firestone tires were free from defects.
''The manufacturers use that as a sledgehammer in litigation,'' Mr. Hoar said.
A combination of problems appears to have made the Firestone tire failures especially deadly. But a combination of mistakes by everyone involved allowed the deadliness to go undetected for years.Continue reading the main story