AKRON (Aug. 9, 2000) — Following in the deep footsteps left by Sears, Roebuck and Co., four more retail chains have halted sales of Firestone-brand Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, at least until a federal probe is completed.
As a precautionary measure, on Aug. 4 Sears´ 780 auto centers and 350 National Tire & Battery stores stopped selling one size—P235/75R15—of the controversy-ridden tires, though a spokeswoman for the mass merchandiser said the Wilderness line is a low-volume product sold only on a special order basis.
While Sears is by far the largest retailer to halt sales of the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.-made tires, and has the most points of sale, that same day Montgomery Ward L.L.C.´s 230 Wards Auto Centers pulled from its inventory the Wilderness AT line—the only tire of the three the Chicago-based company carries.
Also following suit were Tire Kingdom Inc., the 148-store retail chain owned by TBC Corp., Dunn Tire Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., and Tire Discounters, a chain of 21 retail stores in the Midwest.
But as this story continues to unfold practically by the hour, more retailers may elect to follow the same route while questions remain about the safety of the tires—which have come as original equipment on some Ford Motor Co. Explorer sport-utility vehicles.
What are independent dealers who handle Firestone tires to do?
One spokesman for Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) was able to offer dealers little advice other than to direct the owners of such tires to the nearest company-owned Firestone Tire & Service Center, or call a toll-free consumer "hotline"—(800) 465-1904—where a recorded message will give them the same recommendation.
But another source within the company said the tire maker was, through its sales force, "putting the word out on the streets to our dealers and company stores alike to do whatever it takes to keep the customers happy." At least one independent dealer confirmed that he had been given exactly that message from his Firestone sales representative.
Although Wards´ customers haven´t expressed much concern over the tires, Charles H. Knittle, vice president of governmental affairs and corporate communications, said the retailer has "suspended sales of the Wilderness tire, pending the completion and outcome of the review" by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The company was taking the move, he said, "as a precautionary measure," given the fact the tire is being investigated.
The same reasoning was given by Randall Clark, chairman and president of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Dunn Tire Corp., in halting sales of the tires at his dealership.
"We handle most of the Firestone lines," he said. "So what we´ve done, strictly as a precautionary measure, is—rather than expose our customers to any risk—we´ll just take the prudent and more cautious course and not sell the tires until Bridgestone/Firestone announces what it wants to do with this situation," though he added: "I think they probably won´t find that there´s a problem."
After checking the company´s records, he found that "we have never had a problem with those tires. But once the publicity starts, with Ford´s concern and Sears, you face calls from the media asking, `How come you´re still selling them?´
"We don´t want to embarrass Firestone. But on the other hand, our reputation with our customers is the only thing of value in our company, so we´d better protect it at all costs."
The tires have been under a withering barrage of media attention over the past couple weeks—running the gamut of coverage by local TV and radio stations and national newspapers, to the lead story on a number of network TV news programs.
Speaking to Tire Business on Aug. 7, Mr. Clark typified the atmosphere as a "feeding frenzy," noting that TV cameras "were in our store at noon today, and will be back at 3:30 p.m. They just want someone to say something."
Dunn Tire, which has 28 stores stretching from Erie, Pa., to Syracuse, N.Y., decided to suspend sales of the tires not because of anything BFS advised, he said. Rather, the action was prompted by Sears´ move as well as concern expressed by Ford.
The car maker´s chief executive, Jac Nasser, said in a statement issued Aug. 4: "We´re clearly very, very concerned about the situation.
"We have teams that are working around the clock. Once we know exactly what the issues are, we will act, because we feel a responsibility to our customers, for their safety and for the safety of their families."
Some customers driving on the Firestones have called Dunn Tire asking what they should do, Mr. Clark said. "We´re telling them we´re happy to inspect their tires, but we have not had any problems with them.|.|.|. We don´t think there´s anything to be worried about.
"But we´d rather be safe than sorry."
BFS, a longtime supplier to Dunn Tire, faces a real quandary, Mr. Clark continued. "Most product problems can be related to factories and times of manufacture, unless it´s truly a broad-based design problem.
"But if it was, you´d think it would have showed up with a great deal more frequency than apparently it has."
Within the last few days, NHTSA has increased its estimate of deaths related to alleged tread separations on the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.
Initially, it said there were at least 21 deaths and 193 complaints. But Liz Neblett, a NHTSA spokeswoman, told Tire Business that, to date, the agency has received 270 complaints. "This has gotten pretty wide media coverage, meaning that people are saying, `Oh, golly, that happened to me,´ and reporting it."
She said NHTSA is now looking into 46 deaths and 80 injuries possibly linked to the tires and is investigating all of the complaints.
The agency has asked for and received data from BFS and Ford, and both companies have continued to provide information, Ms. Neblett said, adding that the tire maker has been asked to have the bulk of its data in to NHTSA by Aug. 14. "But that doesn´t stop us from asking more questions, to which they must respond, and Ford the same."
A BFS spokesman said the company´s own investigation concerns a mix of OE and replacement tires not limited to a particular size. He was unable to provide any estimates for how much a recall could potentially cost the tire manufacturer, nor how many of the tires being scrutinized are still on the road.
While theoretically the company could be confronted with a massive recall, it and Ford already face a number of product liability lawsuits over the tires.
Plus, on Aug. 7, two law firms—attempting to represent consumers nationwide who have purchased the tires—filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of the 20th Judicial Circuit in and for Lee County, Fla., seeking class action status.
In their suit, the Washington, D.C. plaintiffs´ firm of Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll P.L.L.C. and the Fort Myers, Fla.-based Viles Law Firm allege the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires are defectively designed and manufactured such that the treads separate from the casings, leading to crashes, thus imperiling the safety of drivers and passengers of the vehicles on which the tires are mounted.
Gary E. Mason, a partner with Cohen Milstein, issued a statement claiming BFS "has been actively investigating this problem since 1992 and has yet to fix the defect in the tires. This utter neglect has put the lives of millions of drivers in jeopardy."
The suit is seeking damages and injunctive relief that would force the tire maker to inspect, repair and/or recall the affected tires.
Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, Tatsuo Yoshida, an analyst at ABN Amro Securities in Tokyo, said it´s too early to know whether a recall is likely. But he estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, the cost to BFS to replace all the tires being investigated could run as high as $500 million.
Dunn Tire´s Mr. Clark suspects "the data findings (on the tires), at best, will be inconclusive—and it´s unfortunate because it causes people concern, and they really don´t know what to do."
However, the dealership banks its reputation on a "no-questions-asked customer satisfaction policy," he said, "so we´ll adjust anything, even if we have to eat it, which we do most of the time. But we just haven´t seen any problems with these tires."
Thus far this year, the dealership has had only one "cosmetic" adjustment for a tire it sold.
The ATX II and Wilderness are special-order tires that don´t comprise a large portion of sales at Cincinnati-based Tire Discounters. It operates two stores in northern Kentucky, one in Indiana and 19 in Ohio. Nonetheless, Chris Wood, who´s in charge of inventory and purchasing, said the company—which is not a BFS-direct customer—has decided not to continue stocking the tires.
"We think that it´s wise to wait and see what happens because there´s a lot of consumer scare going on," he said.
However, the dealership is "a very big Kelly, Michelin, Uniroyal and Goodrich dealer, so we have a lot of lines we can substitute—we probably stock at least 50 versions of that P235/75R15 size in a name brand, so it´s not really going to affect us."
TBC Corp.´s Tire Kingdom subsidiary maintains the situation "is a manufacturing issue" involving Ford and BFS.
A press release dated Aug. 3 stated the company´s commitment "is first and foremost to customer safety. Therefore, as a temporary measure, while the manufacturer is looking into this matter, Tire Kingdom is suspending sales" of the three Firestone lines.
Meanwhile, consumer groups continue to weigh in on the issue. A consulting firm in Arlington, Va., that specializes in research and analysis of product safety issues said that, based on the growing evidence, it has joined with others "in calling for Ford and Firestone to recall and replace these tires."
Ralph Hoar & Associates, through its Safetyforum.com Web site, claims that data it has studied indicates Ford Explorers equipped with the Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires "are eight times more likely to be associated with tire failures than a comparable SUV"—such as Jeep Cherokees, which do not use those tires as original equipment.
Citing an analysis of government fatal crash statistics performed for the group, Ralph Hoar, Safetyforum.com´s director, said that "in three decades of involvement in vehicle safety efforts, I´ve seldom seen such clear statistical confirmation of a problem.
"It is true that tires are rarely identified as the cause of a crash. That is all the more reason that these figures and this problem are so critical."
An analysis of NHTSA´s Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) data was performed for Mr. Hoar by Leon Robertson, identified as a noted public health researcher who serves on the faculties of Harvard, Yale and Wake Forest universities and is a consultant to the Centers for Disease Control.
Mr. Robertson, according to Safetyforum.com, has also worked as a consultant to Ford on job-related injuries. He reportedly established during the 1980s that the "vehicle stability index" could be used to predict the likelihood that a vehicle would rollover. The group said NHTSA "now proposes to use the index as the foundation for a public information program to indicate vehicle stability."
The FARS data base consists of police reports of all fatal crashes. Safetyform.com said it includes basic information about crashes, such as tire involvement, but "does not provide sufficient detail to determine whether the specific mode of failure was tread separation."
The group said Mr. Robertson examined data in FARS for calendar years 1991 through 1997 and for vehicle model years 1991 through 1998. During those years, there were 872 fatal Explorer crashes and 310 fatal Jeep Cherokee crashes. Police reported that 22 of the Explorer crashes involved tire problems (2.5 percent), Safetyform.com said, while one one fatal crash with a tire problem was reported for the Cherokees (0.3 percent).
"Thirteen of the 22 tire problems occurred in the third and fourth years of use and 18 of the 22 occurred in the first four years of use, suggestive that they were mostly aging original equipment tires," Mr. Robertson said.
Safetyforum.com identifies its purpose as providing citizens and attorneys with "a platform for teaching and learning about product safety issues."