WASHINGTON (Nov. 30, 2000)—A new federal investigation of Goodyear Load Range E light truck tires had the Akron-based tire maker defending the tires´ safety record, while consumer advocates accused the company of deliberately lying to motorists.
Meanwhile, the same newspaper that first reported on Goodyear´s troubles has now fingered Continental General Tire Co. for alleged withholding of information in a 1993 defect probe of 15-inch General tires.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a preliminary evaluation Nov. 21 into approximately 21 million Load Range E tires manufactured between 1991 and 1999.
NHTSA´s Office of Defect Investigations now has 37 reports on file of alleged tread separations involving the tires, including 30 from Goodyear itself, according to the ODI resume on the investigation. The reports include 31 crashes, 15 deaths and 129 injuries.
Controversy about the Load Range E tires—which include Goodyear´s popular Wrangler AT and HT tires—began Oct. 25, when the Los Angeles Times published an article stating the tires had had tread separations causing eight deaths on U.S. roads. The paper said it gleaned the information from documents involving lawsuits that Goodyear settled.
At the time of the article´s publication, and again when the investigation was announced, Goodyear said that overloading, low air pressure and higher speeds were responsible for the accidents, not anything inherent in the tires.
An unusual pattern of customer complaints against Load Range E tires in 1995 caused Goodyear to assign three separate teams of engineers to study "every aspect of the materials, design and manufacture of these tires," the company said in its Nov. 21 statement.
After nearly two years, the engineers found nothing wrong with the tires, according to Goodyear. "What they did discover was an evolving trend toward larger vehicles and a growing tendency to put heavier loads in those vehicles, which meant the Load Range E tires were sometimes carrying heavier loads than their capacity allowed," the company said.
Goodyear responded to this trend in 1996 by putting nylon overlays on new Load Range E tires, which it still does, it added.
Public Citizen, the consumer watchdog group, accused Goodyear of withholding information from NHTSA and the public about problems with the tires.
"We should not be surprised that Goodyear chose to cover up a defect in its Load Range E tires," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook in a prepared statement. "Goodyear executives knew they wouldn´t be seriously punished for their decision, because the law does not provide for criminal penalties for knowingly concealing such critical data from regulators."
Ms. Claybrook used the opportunity to inveigh against the newly passed Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. Consumer advocates oppose the law, insisting its criminal penalty provisions against tire and auto executives who lie about product defects are far too weak.
"This won´t be the last time we hear about such cover-ups," she said. "They will continue as long as executives know they won´t be putting themselves at risk of criminal sanctions for decisions that result in lost lives and immeasurable human suffering."
Meanwhile, a new Los Angeles Times article Nov. 20 said at least 18 deaths and 58 injuries had been linked to just one of several 15-inch General tire models that were part of a NHTSA investigation the agency closed in July 1993.
"General´s responses to the NHTSA investigation have become a major focus of lawsuits over failures of the tires," the article stated. "Lawyers for crash victims contend that had General come clean with NHTSA, the probe would have continued and there would have been a recall, avoiding tragic injuries and deaths."
Officials of Continental General Tire Inc. couldn´t be reached for comment on the article, but told the Times they had cooperated fully with the agency and that the tires—which were made between 1987 and 1993—are safe.
Last September 19, Continental General announced a "customer satisfaction" program in which it offered to replace free of charge approximately 160,000 16-inch ContiTrac AS tires. These included 140,000 mounted as original equipment on Lincoln Navigators, model years 1998 and 1999, as well as 20,000 replacement tires.
A small percentage of these tires, Conti General explained, "are more susceptible to heat stress that can cause a condition described as belt lift in the shoulder area of the tire." Belt lift could cause a section of the tread belt package to detach from the tire casing, the company said, though it added that it had no reports of "catastrophic" tire failure arising from the problem.
A preliminary evaluation is the first step in a NHTSA defect investigation. If agency investigators decide there is sufficient evidence of a possible defect with the Load Range E tires, they will upgrade the investigation to an engineering analysis.
Goodyear estimates it has manufactured about 27 million Load Range E tires since 1991, of which approximately half are still on the road.