HOUSTON-Two Washington, D.C.-based public interest groups are calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to reopen its 1993 investigation of a line of passenger tires made by General Tire Inc. The two organizations, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), issued the request after a District Court in Houston on Nov. 16 ordered General to make public its adjustment records and other information on the tires.
The two consumer groups believe the data will prove the tires are unusually susceptible to tread separations and/or blowouts under hot-weather driving conditions, such as those encountered in the southwestern U.S.
General has denied the groups' allegations, contending its adjustment rates on the affected tires were ``very low'' and that a NHTSA investigation two years ago ``found no evidence of any defect'' in them.
However, officials of the Washington-based groups believe public release of the company's data will reveal information about the tires not furnished to NHTSA at the time of its earlier investigation.
Company spokesman Edward G. Kalail said General Tire will voluntarily provide NHTSA with supplemental information that it is confident ``will continue to confirm the quality of our tires.''
Complete details were not available regarding the exact number and brand names of the tires in question, which were produced between 1986 and 1990 at General's Mount Vernon, Ill., plant.
However, among the products involved are more than 1 million GT52S tires, size P195/75R15 and P205/75R15, installed as original equipment on Ford's Bronco II, according to the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a third Washington-based public interest organization that intervened in the Houston hearing.
Attorneys and others working for these groups say other tires, including General's AmeriÃWay XT replacement line and various private brand tires produced using the same ``green tire,'' also may be involved.
The Houston hearing took place Nov. 15 after the groups intervened in the out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit resulting from a 1992 accident in Schulenburg, Texas, in which a 1987 Ford Bronco II overturned after suffering a reported tire failure, killing a 21-year-old woman and injuring two other passengers.
Details of the suit's reputed multimillion-dollar damage settlement remain confidential. So, too, were the ``discovery documents'' generated by lawyers in the case-and which the Houston court has ordered made public.
Among these documents are General's product adjustment records and other data-some of which may not have been made available to NHTSA at the time of its earlier investigation, the intervening groups charge.
District Court Judge Carolyn Clause Garcia, who presided at the Houston hearing, ruled that restricting access to such information could have an adverse effect on public health or safety, and ordered General to make the documents public by Nov. 30.
``It is imperative for NHTSA to reopen their investigation now that more factors are available to the public,'' said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator.
A spokesman for NHTSA said the agency undoubtedly will consider the groups' request. In 1993, NHTSA conducted a ``preliminary evaluation'' of the GT52S after receiving reports of seven fatal accidents in which the tires were involved. However, the agency dropped its investigation three months later after concluding there was ``no evidence of a defect trend'' associated with the tires.
General Tire said it is considering appealing the Houston court's decision, despite plans to ``voluntarily'' turn over much of the data to NHTSA.
Ken Wittenauer, associate counsel in General Tire's Akron-based legal department, said much of the data mandated by the court order would go beyond what is necessary for NHTSA to make a determination regarding the tires' safety.
The Houston case is seen as a major legal test of Texas Rule 76a, the state's unique ``sunshine'' law requiring that court documents affecting health and safety be open to public scrutiny.
If upheld, the Texas law could become the model for similar consumer legislation elsewhere.
In a news release, General Tire's legal counsel, D.L. Hollnagel, emphasized that the Houston court's recent ruling ``did not involve any finding or conclusion about the safety or quality of General Tire products.''
The court's decision relates only to ``the public's right to access confidential information previously provided by General Tire in a lawsuit,'' Mr. Hollnagel stressed.
In rebutting the groups' allegations, General Tire was quick to point out that its Mount Vernon plant has received quality awards from several automakers-including Ford. The company also noted that the facility recently was named one of the 10 best manufacturing operations in the U.S. by Industry Week magazine.