``Obviously, we feel great.''
That was the reaction of a Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman to the news June 16 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had denied the petition of a Pasadena, Calif., plaintiffs' attorney to reopen an investigation into Firestone Steeltex R4S, R4SII and A/T light truck radial tires. The agency had closed its original probe of the tires in April 2002 without finding any defect trend.
``We're pleased that NHTSA denied the petition,'' the BFS spokesman said. ``But we're not surprised, because it reaffirms what we've been saying all along: that Steeltex tires are performing well. We believe this should answer all questions about Steeltex tires.''
Joseph L. Lisoni, who filed the petition for the Steeltex investigation along with fellow attorneys Gail M. Lisoni and Steven E. Weinberger, said he expected NHTSA's denial. ``Their predisposition is well-documented in legal journals,'' he said. ``They don't change their minds once they decide not to recall a product.''
Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety and a supporter of Mr. Lisoni's petition, said the failure rate for the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires recalled in 2000 was actually lower than that of the Steeltex tires.
``This decision doesn't square with NHTSA's earlier decisions,'' Mr. Ditlow said. ``I think you're talking about an agency that is more concerned with Bridgestone/Firestone's financial health than with public safety. If you did it by the numbers, there would be a recall.''
NHTSA's denial of Mr. Lisoni's petition does not mean that Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone is off the hook as far as Steeltex tires are concerned. The Lisonis and Mr. Weinberger still have a class-action lawsuit before the California Superior Court in Indio, Calif., seeking a court order forcing the recall of some 30 million Steeltex tires.
Regarding the class action, Mr. Lisoni said NHTSA's rejection of the investigation petition was the best thing that could have happened.
``This now gives the state court national jurisdiction and exclusivity over recalling the tire,'' he said. ``Bridgestone/Firestone will no longer be able to argue we haven't exhausted our federal administrative remedies.''
The agency began its investigation of Steeltex tires Sept. 29, 2000, less than two months after Bridgestone/Firestone, at NHTSA's request, announced the recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Those tires-mostly original equipment on Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport-utility vehicle and other SUVs-had problems with tread separations. Eventually the agency linked the tires to 271 highway deaths.
NHTSA had 169 complaints about Steeltex tires on file when it opened the investigation and 872 when it closed it on April 9, 2002, finding no defect trend.
Mr. Lisoni and his staff began investigating Steeltex tires while representing plaintiffs in a wrongful death and injury case involving a van equipped with Steeltex tires. By mid-November 2002, he claimed to have documented more than 7,000 highway accidents caused by Steeltex tires. He also claimed that he and his staff had identified nearly 3,000 cases on the NHTSA Web site that the agency had not acknowledged.
In a Federal Register notice that it would not reopen the probe, however, the agency said that of those 3,000 cases on the Web site, a majority was duplicate records, and many of the rest did not involve Steeltex tires.
As for the 7,000 cases Mr. Lisoni claimed to have documented on his own, NHTSA noted that he attributed them to unidentified insurance companies and furnished no details except an Internet listing of 1,150 insurers. This made the claims too incomplete for the agency to investigate, it said.
NHTSA's investigation of failed Steeltex tires did not reveal a consistent pattern of rubber-wire adhesion failure as Mr. Lisoni claimed, the agency said. ``The presence of moderate belt edge separation is not unusual in a steel-belted radial tire that has been removed from service, and must be evaluated in the context of the tire use conditions and remaining tread,'' it stated.
Bridgestone/Firestone has manufactured some 39 million Steeltex tires in the past 12 years, encompassing a wide number of tire lines, sizes, load ranges and manufacturing plants, according to NHTSA. ``An enormous population of tires is at issue whose failure rate is lower than that of peer tires used in similar applications,'' the agency said.