The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has closed its last current investigation against Bridgestone/Firestone-a preliminary evaluation of Firestone Steeltex R4S, R4S II and A/T light truck tires.
NHTSA announced a halt to the investigation April 9, about 18 months after it began. Despite a total of 872 complaints against Steeltex tires received by the agency's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI)-the agency kept confidential the number received by Bridgestone/Firestone, at the tire maker's request-NHTSA said the evidence did not support a defect finding. As always, however, it reserved its right to reopen the investigation if new evidence presents itself.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker was jubilant over the end to NHTSA's last defect probe against Firestone tires. ``With the closing of this issue, we are now in an even better position to focus our operations and resources on the forward-looking work of rebuilding our company and the Firestone brand,'' BFS said in a prepared statement.
BFS Chairman John T. Lampe was equally celebratory in a speech he made April 14 at a National Association of Manufacturers meeting in Nashville.
``I'm convinced we have emerged from the recall stronger than we've ever been before,'' the Associated Press quoted Mr. Lampe as saying. A Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said there were no copies available of Mr. Lampe's speech.
NHTSA opened the preliminary evaluation Sept. 29, 2000, less than two months after BFS, at the agency's urging, announced a recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT light truck tires.
At the time the investigation opened, ODI had received 169 complaints about Steeltex tires, including reports of eight crashes, two fatalities and 12 injuries. By the time the probe ended, ODI had reports of 39 crashes, eight deaths and 40 injuries.
In summarizing its decision, NHTSA noted that many of the complaints came soon after the ATX and Wilderness recalls were announced, when they were still the subject of headlines across the U.S.
``Some of the complaint patterns suggest that the complaint levels recorded in this investigation were influenced by the public's greater sensitivity to tire failures in the wake of the substantial media coverage,'' the agency said.
The tires' failure rates were comparatively low compared with other Load Range E tires, NHTSA discovered during its investigation, and most of the reported tread separations turned out to have causes other than defects.
``Many of the vehicles that use the subject tires have different recorded inflation pressures for the front and rear axles,'' the agency said. ``For such vehicles, if the tire pressures are not adjusted following tire rotation, the rear axles could be underinflated by almost 40 percent.'' NHTSA also noted BFS's findings of impact damage, run-flat failures and other tire injuries in tread separation accidents involving Steeltex tires.
When the Steeltex investigation began, Bridgestone/Firestone said the complaints NHTSA had received did not ``give a clear path to determine whether a problem exists.'' Shortly afterward, however, a news report revealed that in 1998 the Arizona Department of Public Safety had had Firestone Steeltex tires replaced with Goodyear tires on 600 department vehicles.
BFS said it knew nothing of this incident, although it had replaced Firestone tires with other Firestone tires in a 1996 consumer satisfaction program with the Arizona Fish & Game Department. In that case, the department had bought Firestone passenger tires for off-road vehicles, the company said.