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Published on June 4, 2001

Consumers should share blame

Fingers are pointing to and fro. Ford's to blame. Firestone's to blame. Everyone's to blame. No one's to blame. Everyone wants to blame someone, don't they? And surely someone has to be to blame.

Don't they?

But who?

Tip-toeing away from the scene of the crime, virtually unscathed, may be the real culprit-the American Consumer. The American Consumer is naive, often careless and nearly always blameless.

When the American Consumer hits himself in the thumb with a hammer, he points his non-throbbing fingers at the hammer company for not putting a ``Do not hit yourself in the thumb or it will really, really hurt'' label on its product.

Likewise, when The American Consumer rolls his Ford Explorer down an embankment after trying to negotiate an S curve at Mach 2, he blames the tires for not having ``do not negotiate S curves at Mach 2'' embossed next to P235/75R15 on the sidewall.

While remaining forever blame-free, The American Consumer is one other thing: easily duped.

Ford Explorers are called ``sport-utility'' vehicles, and therein lies the duping-and the problem. Utility, yes. Sport, no. ``Sport'' conjures images of Corvettes, chrome and clutches, spoilers and speed.

Take a good look at the next SUV you see. Heck, go out in your parking lot or walk out your front door. There's probably 10 or 12 within a Firestone's throw. You don't have to look too close to see the obvious: There is nothing sporty about them. They're boxes on wheels. They're pick-up trucks with permanent caps, much more minivan than Maserati.

But in many ways The American Consumer is led to believe an SUV is no different from a sports car, because in ``sport-utility,'' sport comes first. People see the glamorous TV advertisements. You know, the ones in which the SUV climbs a vertical wall of rock during an ice storm, but Joe Average Driver doesn't spill his coffee.

So The American Consumer goes out, buys an SUV, waits for an ice storm and heads for the nearest vertical wall. Then, when he spills his coffee in his lap and burns himself...wait, that's another story...when his Explorer rolls down that embankment by the S curve, he calls the nearest lawyer, who is never far away at such a time.

As one tire dealer said the other day while discussing the recall, ``the only people that are going to get rich off this are the lawyers.''

He may be right. In the extremely litigious society that America has become, it takes little to stir lawyers into a feeding frenzy. The Firestone recall is a chum line in shark-infested waters.

Put the average driver in an SUV and he suddenly isn't the average driver anymore, especially if he hasn't read the owner's manual. People drive 60 mph in snow and ice and expect their four-wheel-drive vehicles to magically stop.

``Ice is still ice, whether you've got four-wheel-drive or not,'' said John Seckman, owner of Stoney Hollow Tire, Inc. in Martins Ferry, Ohio. ``I think the tire industry is getting a bad rap. People are making better tires than ever. If they're rolling over that number of times, something's got to be wrong.''

Mr. Seckman, as many in the tire industry are wont to do, is leaning toward Ford as the perpetrator. He may be right. The auto maker may be every bit as much to blame as Firestone. We'll probably never know for sure.

What I do know is that I drove my Ford Explorer Sport for 95,000 miles before trading it in with three OE Firestone tires still mounted. Never once did I change a tire due to excessive wear. At every oil change from 50,000 on, I asked about the tires and each time I was told they were in great condition. And they were.

A steel mud flap lying on the Ohio Turnpike obliterated my fourth tire. I was probably going about 70 mph when I hit it. My Explorer didn't roll over. It didn't burst into flames. It didn't spontaneously combust. When I got a new tire put on, the dealer-a Goodyear dealer-remarked about how well the damaged tire held up, considering the force and speed involved.

In the wake of the recent goings-on involving Ford and Firestone, I can't help but look back and wonder, was I sitting on a time bomb, or in one?

My somewhat-educated guess is neither. Rather, I was the time bomb. It's just that unlike a good many people out there, I read the manual, made sure my vehicle remained much more utility than sport, and did everything I could to make sure the fuse never got lit.

Stumpf is a reporter for Tire Business.


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