WASHINGTON—The U.S. government is investigating whether Firestone-brand tires that are original equipment on Ford Motor Co. sport-utility vehicles and pickups pose an undue risk of tread separation and blowout. Announcement of the investigation came on the heels of reports in the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere of tire tread separations allegedly causing 43 deaths over the last decade on U.S. roads. The tire industry, however, said these separations were caused by owner neglect—particularly underinflation and overloading—rather than product defects.
Ninety complaints—including reports of 33 crashes, four deaths and 27 injuries—have been filed against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Defects Investigation, ODI said. As a result, the agency opened a preliminary investigation of the tires May 2.
The tires were installed as original equipment on some Ford Explorers, Rangers and F-150 pickup trucks, and also were available as replacement tires for those vehicles, the office said in its resume on the investigation. Of the 90 complaints, 41 said the tread separations involved OE tires; 10 specified they were replacement tires.
"Most drivers report that they were driving at highway speeds when suddenly they lost control," the resume said. "Some drivers heard a loud noise seconds before the loss of control, but others heard nothing. Those that did hear a noise often reported that the loss of control occurred so quickly they were not able to avoid a collision."
The office also noted "a strong geographic trend" to the complaints, with 43 of the accident reports from Texas and more than 80 percent of the remainder coming from Alabama, Arizona, Southern California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.
Because the investigation is so new, "it's impossible to say where it might lead to," a NHTSA spokesman said. "We don't even know how many tires are involved, or what model years."
In a prepared statement, Bridgestone/Firestone said it would cooperate fully with NHTSA, and also that the company takes "great pride in the quality and durability of the Radial ATX and Wilderness tire lines.
"We continually monitor the performance of all of our tire lines, and the objective data clearly reinforces our belief that these are high-quality tires," BFS added. Nearly 47 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires have "provided many billions of miles of reliable service to the motoring public both on and off the road since 1990," the company said.
The former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. was the subject of the largest tire safety recall in history, when in 1978 it recalled 14 million Firestone 500 radials at an estimated cost of $200 million.
The cost of the recall, plus the resulting loss of consumer confidence, nearly bankrupted Firestone, forcing it to sell off key subsidiaries and accept acquisition by Bridgestone Corp. in 1988.
A flurry of news items about tire tread separations has appeared recently in various newspapers and TV news broadcasts. Most prominent was a group of articles that appeared in the April 30 Chicago Sun-Times.
The Sun-Times pieces quoted expert witnesses for plaintiffs in tire product liability lawsuits as saying that U.S.-manufactured radial tires were far more prone to tread separation than European-made radials because of different manufacturing techniques. They also stated that deaths and injuries involving tire failures were probably conservative because of lax reporting requirements for tire-related accidents.
In a letter to the Sun-Times published May 10, Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, took "strong exception to the tone and method in which your newspaper has chosen to report on the quality and safety of today's radial tire."
Not only did the articles rely too much on statements by plaintiffs' experts, Mr. Shea wrote, they also downplayed the "high level of satisfaction" motorists have with U.S.-made radials and the crucial role played by owner neglect in tire failure.
"Despite a strong record of dependability and performance, tires are one of the most neglected pieces of equipment on a car today," he wrote. "Some drivers do not check their tires on a regular basis and drive thousands of miles on underinflated tires.... It is important to recognize that, if a tire fails, that doesn't mean that the manufacturer did anything wrong or missed any steps in the manufacturing process."