WASHINGTON (April 25, 2001)–Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. needs to take back an additional 10 million tires not included in last August's recall, contends a report newly issued by the group Public Citizen and the plaintiff's attorney for the Web site Safetyforum.com.
But accidents involving Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorers are “largely the responsibility of Ford Motor Co.,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said while unveiling the report at an April 25 press conference.
The report, The Real Root Cause of the Ford-Firestone Tragedy: Why the Public is Still at Risk, analyzes data which Public Citizen and Safetyforum.com said Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone ignored when those companies wrote their own reports. These statistics, according to the report, show that Firestone tires not involved in the recall were just as likely to fail–if not more so–as the 6.5 million recalled ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.
Some of the allegedly faulty tires were used to replace the recalled ones, according to Ms. Claybrook, Safetyforum.com Director Ralph Hoar and Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney C. Tab Turner, who is the attorney of record on tire issues for Safetyforum.com.
In the beginning, “Ford designed a vehicle that was prone to rolling over–the Bronco II–and the company refused to fix it,'' Ms. Claybrook said. “Then, Ford built the Explorer using a virtually identical design theme.
“Ford also drew up the specifications for the now-infamous Firestone tires with treads that unexpectedly separate,” she said. “It was Ford that decided to put a car tire on a pickup truck chassis, which strained the tire. And it was Ford that recommended a low inflation pressure and then demanded the weight of the tire be reduced to improve fuel economy–measures that contributed to the tire's propensity to shred.”
But Bridgestone/Firestone must also be held to account for its role in the problem, Ms. Claybrook added. “It was Firestone that agreed to manufacture the tire despite the fact that the tire was inadequate for the vehicle,” she said. “And between lawsuits and warranty data, Firestone had plenty of notice that the tire had grave deficiencies, but it never told the public or initiated a recall.”
The Public Citizen-Safetyforum.com report backed to a certain extent the studies made by a BFS internal team and by Sanjay Govindjee, a University of California engineering professor hired by BFS as a third-party expert to analyze the recalled tires.
The BFS and Govindjee reports identified a number of causes for the problems that led to tread separations and rollover accidents, including design problems in the belt edge area, design problems with the Explorer, manufacturing problems with the tires and low tire pressures. But Ms. Claybrook, Mr. Hoar and Mr. Turner insisted BFS didn't go far enough in its analysis or its recall.
For example, BFS limited its recall of 15-inch Wilderness tires to those made at the company's Decatur, Ill., facility, Ms. Turner said. But a review of Mr. Govindjee's study of returned tires showed that Wilderness tires from the plants in Wilson, N.C., and Joliette, Quebec, were more than twice as likely to show belt edge cracking as tires from Decatur.
Furthermore, the cracking was much more in evidence in tires driven in the South than in those used in the North, Mr. Turner said. The report cited heat as a major causative factor in tread separations. Mr. Hoar claimed that 47 percent of Firestone tread separation lawsuits stem from crashes that occurred during June, July and August.
Ms. Claybrook and Messrs. Hoar and Turner urged Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone to recall all 15- and 16-inch Wilderness tires–a call they have made several times since the recall of the 15-inch Decatur-made Wilderness tires began.
They also called on Ford, in Ms. Claybrook's words, “to launch an owner notification program and a public information campaign to inform Explorer owners of the dangerous propensity for the vehicles to roll over, as well as the difficulty in controlling an Explorer when a tire tread separates.”
On April 19, Ford released a report blaming the tire design and consumers' lax maintenance of the tires for the Ford-Firestone accidents, but absolving the Explorer of blame. Among 11 popular sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, according to Ford, the Explorer ranks eighth for incidence of rollover accidents.
Ms. Claybrook, Mr. Hoar and Mr. Turner rejected Ford's claims outright. The magazine Consumer Reports, Ms. Claybrook said, shows the Explorer to be “by far the worst” SUV for rollovers. The consistency of Ford's statements defending the Explorer “is enough to make (Joseph) Goebbels blush,” Mr. Hoar said, referring to Nazi Germany's propaganda minister during World War II. “You tell the big lie, and then you repeat it.”
Christine Sagrista, of Deltona, Fla., also appeared at the press conference, along with her four-year-old son Christopher. In November 1999, Ms. Sagrista was severely injured when her 1997 Ford Explorer–equipped with 15-inch Wilderness tires from the BFS plant in Wilson–suffered a tread separation and rolled over. Two-year-old Alex Sagrista, Christopher's twin brother, was killed in the accident.
In response to the charges by Public Citizen and Safetyforum.com, a BFS spokesman said: “We disagree with the (Public Citizen) report, and we stand by the results of our independent research.”
A Ford spokesman said: “We continue to work closely with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Any group with information should be sharing it with NHTSA.”
To date, NHTSA has traced 174 deaths to accidents involving Firestone tires. Ms. Claybrook and Mr. Hoar set the figure at the press conference to at least 184, including 10 gleaned from lawsuits but not reported to NHTSA by Ford or BFS. (Although the report said 12 deaths, Ms. Claybrook and Mr. Hoar corrected the figure