The recent recall of 596,000 Continental and General tires, most on large Ford Motor Co. sport-utility vehicles, showed warning systems can work to keep parts flaws from becoming safety disasters.
Some observers credit a federal law enacted two years ago in the wake of the Firestone brand tire failures on Ford light trucks for the latest, relatively prompt recall by Continental Tire North America.
Federal early-warning provisions aren't in effect yet.
But Continental, Ford and many other automotive companies have developed internal systems that mirror the upcoming federal requirements.
And those systems triggered Continental's recent recall of 17-inch Continental ContiTrac AW and General Grabber AW tires, mostly on two-wheel-drive Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators, the companies said.
``Are we looking to follow the spirit and intent of the (federal) act? Absolutely,'' said Continental spokesman Jim Gill.
The tire maker detected problems by monitoring warranty claims and damage reports. The company said the tires exhibited uneven wear, vibration and, in some cases, tread separation.
Ford also detected trouble in April, and the two companies began sharing information, said Ford spokesman Todd Nissen. Meanwhile, under the rules implementing the federal law, auto makers and suppliers will be required to submit reports on warranty claims, damage reports and other incidents to the government. The first reports are due in mid-2003.
Continental spokesman Mark Sowka declined to say how the failure rates of the recalled tires compared with normal failure rates.
``It was significant enough to get our attention,'' he said.
Lee Jones, executive director of Safetyforum.com, a research firm for product liability lawyers, applauded Continental's responsiveness but said credit should also go to the power of litigation.
``If Continental had any sense at all, they saw what happened to Bridgestone/Firestone,'' she said. That company is paying hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and damage awards.
Likewise, law professor Rogelio Lasso of Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., who uses the Firestone-Ford incidents as material for aspiring lawyers, said regulation and litigation are effective in improving product safety.
But, he said: ``Litigation is the best deterrent. That costs money.''
There is also incentive in avoiding the adverse publicity and humiliation of being hauled before a congressional committee to explain why one's company sold potentially dangerous products.
``We put the fear of God in everybody,'' said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in reaction to the Continental recall.
The committee held grueling hearings two years ago on Firestone tire failures and Ford Explorer rollovers. The panel wrote the legislation that later became known as the TREAD Act. That is the law that establishes the federal early-warning system. It also requires tire pressure monitoring systems on new cars and trucks, sets new tire performance standards, creates rollover tests for new vehicles and has other safety provisions.
To Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, the Conti recall is proof that the TREAD Act is working exactly as it should.
``This is a good example of what the early warning system is supposed to do, which is warn motorists of a safety defect before it becomes a disaster,'' Mr. Ditlow said. ``Congress deserves credit for passing that law, and Continental deserves credit for recalling the tires so quickly.''
Two provisions of the TREAD Act-new defect reporting requirements and stronger criminal penalties against industry executives who withhold defect information-worked in tandem to hasten the Conti recall, according to Mr. Ditlow. He disagreed, however, with the legal experts who said the threat of litigation also played a role.
``Criminal penalties are always a stronger motivation to business executives than product liability lawsuits,'' he said.
Mr. Ditlow said he had no idea what sort of early warning system Continental had in place before the TREAD Act became law, but added, ``I haven't seen large tire recalls this fast in the past.''
As for the simultaneous announcement from Ford about erroneous tire labels, he said there was a clear relation between that and the recall.
``It's simply appalling that Ford is up to the same tricks,'' Mr. Ditlow said. ``Once again there are low inflation pressures; once again they are specifying tires that aren't robust enough to go on SUVs.''
The hearings followed highly publicized crashes, mostly of Ford Explorers, after Firestone tires lost their treads. Federal officials linked 271 deaths to the crashes and 13 million tires were replaced.
Tire Business Washington reporter Miles Moore contributed to this story.