Safety Research Firm Calls on Firestone and Ford to Recall Defective Tires
31 July 2000Firestone and Ford Stonewall U.S. Consumers while Recall Underway in Venezuela
ARLINGTON, Va. - Strategic Safety, a firm specializing in research and investigation of motor vehicle safety, is calling on Ford and Firestone to recall tires on 1991 through 2000 model Ford Explorers and other Ford trucks because of defects that can lead to tread separation and subsequent rollover and collisions. According to Strategic Safety, who has been tracking the Firestone/Explorer tire problem for several years Ford is recalling Firestone tires on all 1996-1999 Explorers in Venezuela because of defects that cause tread separation, a problem that is also occurring at an alarming rate in the U.S., particularly in warm climates. Firestone is currently under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for tread separation failures in its ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness tires which were designed for and fitted on millions of Ford vehicles including the Explorer, Ranger, and F-150 since 1991. According to Sean Kane, a partner in Strategic Safety, "There have been at least 100 serious injuries and fatalities in the U.S. attributed to the problem." Questions about the safety of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers were raised earlier this year in Venezuela after a number of accidents were reportedly caused by tire tread separations. Ford initially denied tires were defective and blamed the problem on high mileage and excessive speed, and on tires that were previously damaged. Ford's Andean division first offered consumers discounted prices as an incentive to replace tires, but in June the company announced a recall and began notifying all 1996-1999 Explorer owners that it would immediately replace all four tires at no cost. Kane says, "while Ford and Firestone delay taking action to replace tires, or even warn owners of the potential hazard, the number of injuries and fatalities are on the rise in the U.S. The problem appears to be worsening as the tires age and when they are operated in hot weather conditions. Meanwhile, Firestone has been instructing dealers to inform customers that they have 'full confidence' in their tires' performance but are quietly providing tires to consumers who demand replacements." Earlier this year Firestone offered free tires to Houston-area Explorer owners after local news coverage of widespread tread separation problems. In Southern California, according to a Firestone memo obtained by Strategic Safety, the company instructs its dealers to replace tires at the customer's request. Firestone is reimbursing dealers in San Diego and LA a $7.50 commission per tire plus a $1.00 scrap fee for their participation. Dealers are instructed to drill holes in the sides and scrap the tires they remove. Again, Firestone's action was initiated only after local news coverage of two fatal accidents. According to Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Arkansas attorney who represents clients injured in accidents resulting from Firestone tire failures, "Maintaining vehicle control when a tire physically comes apart at highway speeds can be very difficult in any vehicle. In vehicles like SUVs, which are inherently more unstable due to the combination of high centers of gravity, narrow track widths, and soft suspensions, maintaining control is extremely difficult because the vehicle reacts unpredictably, necessitating large steering corrections. Consumers are neither trained nor equipped to handle these situations and are often simply along for the ride once these catastrophic events occur at highway speeds. The automotive and tire industries understand the unique handling problems associated with SUVs when consumers are faced with these emergencies and they must be forced to take corrective action before further lives are lost." Failures that have occurred in Venezuela's hot climate happened on high- speed highways, under conditions similar to those found in the southern and southwestern U.S. Temperatures in states like Texas, Florida, California, and Arizona often exceed those found in Venezuela. Both Strategic Safety and the federal government note a strong failure trend in southern states. Heat can affect tire tread bonding and may be associated with an increased rate of tread separation. Roger Braugh, an attorney with the Corpus Christi, Texas law firm Harris & Watts, has found that Firestone and Ford are not only stonewalling U.S. owners, but they are also deliberately delaying the production of documents that would shed light on the scope, magnitude, and root causes of the defect. Braugh, who represents several clients severely injured in collisions caused by Firestone tire failures in Ford Explorers, said "Firestone claims its tires are safe based on evaluation of its data, but they refuse to produce the data to back these claims. Although Ford and Firestone continue to withhold relevant documents, our own investigations reveal that Ford experienced tread separation problems with Firestone tires in testing prior to the introduction of the Explorer." By Firestone's admission, there are at least 12 million, and possibly as many as 47 million tires at issue. The company has sought confidentiality for its production numbers, which were recently provided in response to the federal government's investigation. In a July 28, 2000, Freedom of Information Act request, Strategic Safety has asked that the data be released to help the public understand the scope of the problem.