WASHINGTON-Rather than fight a defect decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has agreed to recall some 768,000 Firestone Wilderness AT tires made prior to May 1998, in exchange for NHTSA closing its investigation.
NHTSA has determined that the tires-size P235/75R15 and P255/70R16-can develop weak spots around their circumference because of high stress at the belt edge, leading to tread separation. In the spring of 1998, BFS started thickening the belt wedge in the tires, which sharply reduced the tread separations, the agency said.
Tread separations on these tires led to approximately 50 injuries and 25 fatalities, the agency said. These figures are part of a new total of 271 fatalities NHTSA has traced to accidents involving Firestone tires, a NHTSA spokesman said. The revised number of injuries was not immediately available; the previous agency figures were 203 deaths and over 700 injuries.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker produced some 3.5 million of these tires, according to NHTSA. Most of them were manufactured at BFS plants in Wilson, N.C., and Joliette, Quebec, with fewer than 100,000 coming from its Oklahoma City facility. The tires mostly were original equipment on 1995-98 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers, with a smaller number sold as replacement tires or as OE equipment on Ford Ranger compact pickup trucks.
BFS estimates 768,000 of those tires are still on the road. ``We make no calculation as to how many tires are still on the road, only how many were in the original tire populations,'' the NHTSA spokesman said when asked whether he thought the company's estimate was accurate.
Originally, BFS pledged to fight any NHTSA defect decision when the agency announced July 19 it would make one. In an Oct. 4 news release, however, BFS Chairman John T. Lampe said the company would comply with the recall.
``We do not agree with NHTSA's findings,'' Mr. Lampe said. ``Our testing and science show our tires perform extremely well. However, we have decided that it is in the best interest of our company, our employees, our dealers and our customers if we replace the limited number of tires in question and close this chapter in the company's history.''
Although NHTSA will end the investigation of Firestone tires made prior to May 1998, it will continue to ``monitor the situation'' to make sure Firestone tires made after that date aren't defective, the agency spokesman said.
Bridgestone/Firestone said the recalled Wilderness tires have ``a solid record of performance and durability'' when mounted on pickup trucks instead of sport-utility vehicles-an obvious slam at Ford Motor Co., whose Explorer SUV BFS insists is partly to blame for the fatal accidents, because of an allegedly faulty design.
Nevertheless, Firestone dealers and company-owned stores will replace the tires free of charge on pickup trucks as well as on SUVs, the company said.
Tires subject to the replacement program and which qualify for the pickup truck program are Wilderness AT P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 with DOT code numbers ending in 4, 5, 6, or 7. In addition, these tires with the last three digits of the DOT numbers shown as 018 through 188 are also included in the field action and pickup truck program, the company said. The two programs will run through Jan. 31, 2002.
NHTSA began its investigation into Firestone tires in May 2000. In August 2000, Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million Wilderness AT and ATX radials.
Ford, blaming BFS solely for the accidents, unilaterally recalled an additinal 13 million Firestone OE tires on its vehicles in May 2001, a move which caused BFS to end its 95-year relationship with Ford.
In a press release, Ford said the tires named by NHTSA were already part of Ford's 13-million-tire recall, which included all 15-, 16- and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires installed on Ford vehicles.