Recalled Firestone Tires Still Claiming Lives; Victims' Families and Safety Advocates Press NHTSA to Round-up Defective Spares

REHOBOTH, Mass., June 22 -- Despite one of the largest tire recalls in decades, defective Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT spare tires remain in circulation and continue to cause devastating rollover crashes, prompting calls for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate the effectiveness of the consumer replacement programs in 2000 and 2001.

Sean E. Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, the Enriquez family of Deltona, Florida and the families of three other victims have requested that NHTSA work with Firestone and Ford to launch another consumer notification program to ensure that the defective spare tires are removed. Reports filed by Firestone and Ford to NHTSA indicate that approximately 12 million of the more than 20 million tires that remained in use were captured by the recalls. Spare tires were often forgotten in the initial drive to replace the four in-service tires. In subsequent years, the defective spares have been passed along in used-vehicle sales and put in service with catastrophic results.

"Even though millions of defective tires were collected, there were potentially millions of tires that weren't -- and these campaigns were so huge, the number of uncaptured tires is bigger than the number of tires retrieved in most recalls," says Kane. "While we don't know how many spares are out there, the number is potentially significant. We've personally spoken to Ford Explorer owners who unknowingly still had these recalled spares under their trucks. Each tire that's still out there represents another potential human tragedy."

Michael Enriquez, 27, suffered permanent injuries in May 2005, when the Firestone ATX P235/75R15 on his 1993 Ford Explorer experienced a tread separation and overturned on a Florida highway. Mr. Enriquez had only owned the vehicle for six months when the accident occurred. Mr. Enriquez, now a quadriplegic, resides in a rehabilitation facility where he is dependent upon a ventilator to breathe.

"Michael now knows that this accident would never have occurred had the ATX recall been effective in capturing spare tires and had the manufacturers simply placed a clear and unambiguous expiration date on the tire," says Paul Byron, an attorney representing the Enriquez family. "Michael and his family sincerely hope that the suffering they have endured is not needlessly borne by other people."

In August 2000, and again in June and October 2001, the Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone conducted massive campaigns to retrieve some 20 million P235/75R15 ATX and 15, 16 and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires after a federal investigation determined that the tires were prone to tread separations that officially claimed more than 270 lives in rollover accidents, mostly involving Ford Explorers.

According to independent research conducted by Safety Research & Strategies, there are many reasons why the recalled tires are still in consumers' hands. For one, there was confusion among vehicle owners about whether the spares were covered under the recalls. (Full-sized spares marked Temporary were excluded, but many vehicles had a fifth ATX or Wilderness AT as a spare.) The massive shortages created by three separate replacement programs also prompted some dealerships and tire centers to focus on the four in-service tires first. Many consumers assumed that the spares were changed as well, and its location under the vehicle made it impossible for the consumer to check, without removing it. Other consumers were told they would have to wait up to a year for a spare replacement. Despite complaints to Ford, some spares were not replaced. When the original owners sold their vehicle, the forgotten spare was passed along, and, in some cases, used. In the last two years, there have been four known cases in which a defective recalled tire caused a serious accident resulting in one fatality and three victims coping with permanent injuries.

The ATXs and Wilderness tires may appear to be in perfect condition, with deep tread. But, says Kane, they are more deadly today than when they were first recalled, because tires age and degrade over time regardless of whether they have been used.

"The initial wave of rollovers with tread separations showed that the ATXs lasted about three years before failing," he says. "Today, these forgotten tires are anywhere from six to 15 years old and they are likely to fail in weeks or months, not years. A re-notification to consumers as well as tire and repair shops is needed to prevent these tires being used unknowingly."

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, MA-based auto safety research and consulting firm, first alerted the public to the dangers of ATX tires on Explorers in July 2000. Kane called for a recall of Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires after discovering that Ford was recalling the same tires in overseas markets. Nine days later, Firestone announced its first recall in North America. SRS has also been at the forefront of tire- aging research and continues to advocate for tire manufacturers to create expiration dates for tires.

Paul Byron is a law partner at Overchuck, De Marco, Byron & Overchuck, PA, located in Winter Park, FL.

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