WASHINGTON (Oct. 11, 2000)—Goodyear and Ford Motor Co. reacted with anger, Bridgestone/Firestone with dignified pleasure to a Washington Post article which suggested the Ford Explorer´s design may exacerbate tread separation problems, regardless of the brand of tires on the vehicle.
BFS also said that complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding Firestone Steeltex tires do not "give a clear path to determine whether a problem exists" with the tires NHTSA began investigating Sept. 29.
Meanwhile, both BFS and Ford scrambled to correct an earlier mistake in which a BFS spokesman said the 15-inch ATX spare tires on Ford Ranger Edge pickup trucks were the same as the ATX tires currently being recalled.
The "Post" article, which appeared on the paper´s front page Oct. 9, analyzed traffic crash reports from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which lists national data on fatal traffic accidents, and the Florida Uniform Traffic Crash data, both between 1997 and 1999.
According to the "Post´s" analysis, Explorers equipped with Goodyear tires had a higher rate of tire-related fatal accidents than Explorers fitted with other tires, though the paper noted that the 2,000 accidents involved "are so few that the difference could be a statistical fluke."
But the 25,000 accidents reported from Florida, including 83 tire blowouts, showed that Explorers equipped with Firestone tires were four times as likely to crash after a blowout as other SUVs, and Explorers fitted with Goodyear tires more than twice as likely to crash after a blowout.
Also, in 5,870 single-vehicle accidents, the Explorer was 13 percent more likely to roll over than other compact SUVs, and the Explorer rolled over in 95 percent of 187 tire-related fatal accidents, according to the paper.
Ford CEO Jacques Nasser and other Ford executives have insisted from the beginning that the accidents and fatalities leading to the Aug. 9 recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires were strictly a tire problem. Bridgestone/Firestone did not openly dispute these statements until last month, when BFS Executive Vice President John Lampe suggested in a Senate hearing that the Ford Explorer´s design may also have played a role in the crashes.
In its Oct. 9 story, the "Post" said its analysis "suggests that something about the Explorer may be contributing to these accidents."
In a prepared statement, Ford called the "Post" analysis "flawed" and said the story ignored the Explorer´s superior safety record compared with other compact SUVs.
"It is well understood that Florida has had a relatively high rate of Firestone tire tread separation accidents," the auto maker said. "Yet in Florida, the rollover fatality rate for the Explorer is substantially lower than for other compact SUVs. The same is true nationally. Explorer is one of the safest vehicles on the road."
A Goodyear spokesman gave a similar response. The "Post" story ignored the fact that the "tire-related" accident category in the Florida database lists all tire-related accidents of any sort—including road hazards and other circumstances as well as defects—without differentiating.
"We have to go back to an `apples-to-apples´ comparison," the spokesman said. "When you look at our warranty data collected over 10 years, we have had no damage claims, no accidents, no injuries, no rollovers, no lawsuits and no fatalities. That´s what we have to go by."
In a prepared statement, BFS said it has "maintained from the beginning" that the problem was not strictly tire-related. "Any automobile accident involves a number of variables, including external conditions, the tire and the vehicle itself," the company said. "The `Washington Post´ research begins to address this issue."
The tire maker did some research of its own, analyzing and publicly releasing 166 of the 169 reports which led NHTSA to open a preliminary evaluation of Steeltex tires.
In a press release accompanying the vehicle owner questionnaires, Bridgestone/Firestone noted that Department of Transportation identification numbers were missing on many of the forms; some complaints involved tires which were already recalled in December 1997 because they were damaged at a Ford assembly plant; two listed vehicles on which Steeltex tires won´t fit; one said the tire involved had 91,000 miles on it; and one listed a tire size which is not a Steeltex size.
"It is clear why the Department of Transportation, NHTSA, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, Bridgestone/Firestone and others support changes in how this data is collected, analyzed and reported," BFS said. "BFS strongly supports congressional passage of early reporting requirements, increased monitoring by NHTSA and enhanced labeling standards."
Early the week of Oct. 2, a BFS spokesman was quoted as saying the ATX spares the company supplies for the Ford Ranger were exactly the same as the recalled ATX tires, except for sidewall markings that state "Temporary Use Only" and "Max Speed 50 mph."
Later that week, however, the company changed its tune, saying the Ranger spares also have "major structural differences" from the recalled tires in their tread compounds and belt construction.
"The function of these temporary tires is only to get you to the dealer," a spokesman said. The ATX spares are exclusive to the Ford Ranger, and about 307,000 have been manufactured since late 1997, he added.
A Ford spokesman said Oct. 6 that 3.71 million recalled Firestone tires—57.1 percent of the total—had been replaced.