WASHINGTON (July 26, 2001)—Defiance mingled with caution is the best way to describe Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s public stance in the face of a pending, further government recall of its tires.
After being informed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) July 19 that the agency wanted more Firestone tires to be recalled, BFS took the offensive, saying it would fight any such action.
“We have strong evidence as to why our tires are safe and why extra agency action is unnecessary,” said John T. Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone chairman, president and CEO, during a July 19 teleconference.
Mr. Lampe—who accompanied his talk with the release of various charts providing company data on the performance of Firestone and non-Firestone tires—said the company “will use any available steps to demonstrate that our tires are safe, including public hearings and if necessary the courts.”
At the same time, the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker continued to pursue its policy of quietly settling the pending personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits against it. A Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman estimated that the company has settled about 200 lawsuits and claims related to its tires.
“We have settled or made substantial progress on settling more than 40 percent of the lawsuits,” she said. “We talk on a daily basis with plaintiffs' attorneys.”
The most recent settlement came July 13 in a Ford Explorer rollover case in San Antonio, which involved the death of one girl and the serious injury of her sister. The Associated Press said jury selection had begun in this case, but the Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said it had not.
NHTSA began its investigation of Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires in May 2000, three months after a Houston television station ran stories about accidents involving the tires and three months before Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million of the tires.
Although there was no word as of July 24 when the agency would make its move, NHTSA did say in a July 19 press release that it will issue an initial defect decision—a major step toward a forced recall.
“The primary mission of NHTSA is to ensure public safety, based on carefully conducted investigations,” the agency said. “Firestone was asked to recall some of the tires and they refused to do so.” NHTSA added that it was “premature to discuss the initial decision in detail.”
That decision, when it comes, will appear in the Federal Register, a NHTSA spokesman said, although he couldn't speculate on when the notice would be published. Once it appears, the agency has 30 days to schedule a public hearing on the issue.
During the July 19 teleconference, Mr. Lampe complained that NHTSA had not allowed Bridgestone/Firestone to review the agency's data “in any meaningful way.” He said he believed—though he wasn't certain—that NHTSA would ask for the recall of “a subset” of the 13 million Wilderness AT tires already recalled in May by Ford Motor Co. News reports estimated the possible new recall population at anywhere from 4 million to 7 million tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone's own data, Mr. Lampe said, show that “Wilderness AT tires perform the same as, if not better than, competitors' tires across the board.” Concurrent with the teleconference, the company released to the press a series of charts showing the results of its own testing.
Those charts backed BFS' longtime claim that the Ford Explorer, on which most of the recalled tires were mounted as original equipment, is “plagued with significant safety problems because of significant flaws in its design,” Mr. Lampe said.
One Bridgestone/Firestone chart showed Ford Explorers to have a tread separation claims rate eight times that of the Ford Ranger. “That's for the exact same tire, made at the exact same plants, sent on the exact same trucks to the exact same Ford assembly plants,” said the commentary accompanying the chart. “The only difference? The Ford Explorer.”
After the news conference, BFS also issued a list of 16 accidents involving failures of non-Firestone tires on Ford Explorers.
Fourteen of the accidents, which occurred between 1997 and 2001, involved tread separations, and 13 caused fatalities. A total of 15 people were killed and 29 injured in the crashes.
Michelin, Dunlop, Goodyear, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich, General, Cooper and Kelly-Springfield tires were involved in the accidents, which occurred in California, Mississippi, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Missouri and Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, at a Tokyo press conference July 23, Bridgestone Corp. President Shigeo Watanabe affirmed his support for the position of Bridgestone's U.S. subsidiary.
“If the command for a recall comes about, Firestone is prepared to pursue this issue in the courts,” Reuters quoted Mr. Watanabe as saying. “As a parent company, we support Firestone's thinking and will throw our full support behind it.”
Also at the press conference, Mr. Watanabe said that maybe it was time to consider some changes to the Firestone brand strategy. There was some confusion as to whether he meant it was time to consider retiring the Firestone name, but Mr. Watanabe later clarified his statement, saying he referred only to marketing strategies. There are no plans to retire the Firestone name, he said.
A Nashville-based spokesman for Bridgestone had no information on how Mr. Watanabe might want to change the Firestone brand strategy.