WASHINGTON—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 Inc. for allegedly withholding 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 experienced 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.
The engineers found nothing wrong with the tires, Goodyear said. "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."
Goodyear responded to this trend in 1996 by putting nylon overlays on new load range E tires, which the company said it still does.
The consumer watchdog group Public Citizen accused Goodyear of withholding information about problems with the tires.
A preliminary evaluation is the first step in a NHTSA defect investigation.
Goodyear estimates it has manufactured about 27 million load range E tires since 1991, approximately half of which still are on the road.
Meanwhile, a new Los Angeles Times article Nov. 20 said at least 18 deaths and 58 injuries had been linked to one of several 15-inch General tire models that were part of a NHTSA investigation closed in 1993.
General's responses to that investigation are a major focus of lawsuits involving failures of those tires, the article stated. Lawyers for crash victims told the Times that had General come clean with NHTSA, its probe would have continued and lead to a recall, avoiding injuries and deaths.
CGT officials could not be reach for comment, but they told the Times they had cooperated fully with the agency and that the tires—made between 1987 and 1993—are safe.