WASHINGTON—Buffeted by a barrage of bad publicity and consumer safety concerns, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has opted to conduct a voluntary recall of 6.5 million light truck tires that may be linked to accidents, some of them fatal and mostly involving Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles.
The action—prompted by increasing criticism in the media and scrutiny by the federal government—comes a century and six days to the date of the founding in Akron of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., Aug. 3, 1900. It is the second-largest tire recall in the industry's history, following the infamous Firestone 500 debacle that forced the company to recall 14 million tires in 1978.
The latest recall covers all Firestone Radial ATX and Radial ATX II tires, in the size P235/75R15, produced in North America including Mexico, and Wilderness AT tires of the same size made in the tire manufacturer's Decatur, Ill., plant.
Calling this an "extraordinary step" undertaken to ensure consumer safety as well as confidence in its brands, officials from Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) and Ford Motor Co. held a news conference Aug. 9 in Washington, D.C., to announce the move and explain a three-phase recall process that will start in warm-climate states and, over the next year, eventually encompass the entire nation.
The tire maker estimates some 14.4 million of the tires have been produced and about 6.5 million are still in use, including 3.8 million Radial ATX and ATX II and 2.7 million Wilderness AT tires. About 60-70 percent of them have come as original equipment on Ford vehicles such as the Explorer, Ranger and F-150 pickup truck.
The cost to BFS, which in fiscal 1999 reported operating earnings of $543 million, could be staggering. The Firestone 500 cost the company an estimated $200 million 22 years ago. Stephen J. Girsky, an analyst with New York-based Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, estimates the price tag on the latest recall could be at least $350 million.
Ford said it stopped receiving Wilderness AT tires in January from the Decatur factory, which was crippled for months in 1994-95 from an acrimonious strike by the United Steelworkers of America. During its course, BFS was forced to bring in replacement workers to continue operations at the plant.
The three Firestone lines have been enveloped in controversy since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in May, began a preliminary evaluation of the tires because of reported incidents of alleged tread separations. Spurred by at least 270 complaints thus far, the agency now is looking into reports of 46 deaths and 80 injuries relating to alleged tire failures, NHTSA spokeswoman Liz Neblett told Tire Business. As publicity widens, she said it's likely more incidents will come to light.
BFS probably will work in tandem with Ford to notify vehicle owners of the recall by mail. Consumers are being urged to seek replacement tires from a company-owned Firestone Tire and Service Center, independent Firestone retailers, or the approximately 2,900 Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships that currently perform tire-related services.
No matter how old the tires or how many miles they have on them, the tire maker said it will replace them, free of charge, with brand new Wilderness AT or other BFS-made tires. If necessary, it will obtain other sources of supply and will even offer other manufacturers' brands if that's what it takes to allay consumers' fears.
Gary Crigger, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone, presented the recall battle plan and fielded questions in a room packed with reporters, while countless others participated in the press conference via the Internet or phone from around the world. BFS has been working very closely with Ford and NHTSA, he said, "to determine the cause of the accidents involving vehicles with these tires."
But in many of the incidents reportedly linked to the Firestones, he said the company has often been unable to actually inspect the tires because they're being held as evidence in lawsuits that have been filed against BFS and Ford.
Accidents involving these tires are "rare" in comparison to the millions of tires produced, Mr. Crigger contended. "While we have not determined what, if any, problem there may be with the design or manufacture of these tires," he said, a review by BFS of the data suggests three things:
1) The number of reported incidents with the P235/75R15 Radial ATX and ATX II is higher than with other sizes in this line;
2) BFS' Decatur, Ill., plant is over-represented in the accident claims and reports compared with the company's other tire plants;
3) The vast majority of the reported incidents are in the southern-most states of Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, suggesting there may be a direct correlation between heat and tire performance.
According to Ford, more than 80 percent of the reported Firestone tread separations have occurred in those four hot-weather states.
"The abundance of concern surrounding these tires clearly indicates the need" for the recall, Mr. Crigger added.
However, initial investigations of tires linked to accidents have indicated a "preponderance of evidence" showing that most were caused by "damage coming from outside the tires," he said, including road hazards, driving them under- or over-inflated, and improper repairs such as the use of tire plugs.
Because most of the incidents have occurred in the nation's warmer climate areas, BFS is undertaking a three-phase recall that will start immediately in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas and is expected to be completed in those states by October. The second phase will then get under way in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee, followed by the final phase for the rest of the country as well as Mexico and Canada.
Replacement tires will be prioritized to each state, and BFS officials said plants have begun ramping up to meet demand.
In defense of its almost 100-year relationship with Firestone, Ford's Helen Petrauskas, vice president of environmental and safety engineering, said the car maker has worked closely with BFS to thoroughly investigate tire tread separation concerns. "As we have repeatedly stated, we are absolutely committed to doing the right thing to protect our customers and to maintain their trust."
An analysis of field data by both companies, also reviewed by NHTSA, indicates that the tires being recalled account for the overwhelming majority of tread separation failures reported on Firestone tires.
After "extensive review of the data," she continued, Ford is satisfied the tire failures have been isolated to the Decatur factory.
"We believe that the Wilderness AT produced since 1996 at Firestone's Aiken, S.C.; Joliette, Quebec; Wilson, N.C.; and Oklahoma City plants have an outstanding safety record," she said, and Ford has "confidence" in those tires. Firestone "continues to be a valued supplier to Ford," she added.
As Mr. Crigger ticked down a list of particulars for the recall, he used the press conference as a forum to urge consumers to take steps to increase the lifespan and safety of their tires by maintaining proper inflation.
His remarks were echoed by Ms. Petrauskas, who said that at the request of BFS, Ford has evaluated the performance of the Firestone tires at 30 psi—which the tire maker recommends—and "has determined that the vehicle maintains good performance characteristics at this higher pressure."
But Ford is recommending that owners of its Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs with P235/ 75R15 ATX and Wilderness AT tires maintain tire pressures in the range of 26 to 30 psi.
While most of the controversy over the tires has swirled about Ford SUVs and pickups, General Motors Corp. weighed in with something of a defense for the Wilderness tires it uses on some GM vehicles.
A statement read at the press conference and attributed to Brook Lindbert, director of GM tire and wheel systems, said the "safety of our customers is an overriding priority" for GM, since Wilderness tires have been provided as original equipment on more than 500,000 GM vehicles in the last three model years.
However, Mr. Lindbert said the Firestones on its SUVs and pickups "are different than those found on other manufacturers' vehicles because they were engineered and tuned to meet GM's specific and unique performance requirements.
"The real-world performance of the Wilderness tires on GM vehicles has been excellent and we are aware of no incidents reported to us involving durability or tread separation."
The auto maker said any GM customers concerned with their Wilderness tires can have them inspected for free at a GM dealership or a company-owned Firestone Tire and Service Center.
Bridgestone/Firestone has increasingly been under the microscope in recent weeks after reports that Ford voluntarily recalled nearly 47,000 vehicles in six countries—Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Malaysia—and replaced the Firestone tires due to tread separation problems.
Several consumer- and trial-lawyer groups began clamoring for a recall as lawsuits were filed.
Then on Aug. 7, two law firms—attempting to represent consumers nationwide who had 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.
Will the Firestone recall succeed?
Tod Marks, a senior editor with Consumer Reports magazine who writes about product recalls, told National Public Radio that such actions can have a success rate of anywhere between 10 and 90 percent, depending on how a company handles it and how much the effort is publicized. He predicted this recall would likely be successful since it has garnered so much publicity.
Despite the phased-in recall, Mr. Marks suggested consumers concerned about their tires not wait, but drive to a Firestone retailer and demand replacements immediately. "After all," he noted, "it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease."