Congress Grills Ford, Firestone Over Tire Tests

Officials from Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. suffered a grilling by Congress as the rift between the two companies over defective tires widened.

“There was something rotten in Decatur,” Rep Fred Upton, R-Mich., said at a House Commerce consumer protection subcommittee today. Most of the Firestone tires now blamed for killing 101 people between 1992 and 1999 were produced at a plant in Decatur, Ill.

Congressmen blasted Ford over using a “mule,” a F-150 pickup chassis that simulates a Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle, to test tires. And subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., said Firestone had a “horribly flawed” testing process, as the company didn’t trigger a recall after more than 10 of 129 tires failed 1996 tests.

“About 10 percent, one out of 10 of the production tires, fails … what was in the mind of the people of Decatur when they saw those results and failed to notify headquarters?” Tauzin said.

Ford has come under fire since Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million 15-inch sport utility vehicle tires on Aug. 9. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advised consumers to replace an additional 1.4 million tires on Aug. 31. The tires under the recall, ATX, ATX-II and Wilderness AT tires, are found mostly on Ford Explorers, and investigators believe Ford knew about defects in the tires long before the recall and chose to hide it from the public.

Companies Disagree

Under the assault, the relationship between Ford and Firestone seemed to deteriorate further. Firestone executive vice president Tom Lampe repeated claims that Ford underinflated the Explorer’s tires at 26 pounds per square inch. He said Firestone wrote a letter to Ford yesterday demanding that they inflate the tires to 30 psi.

“We believe very strongly that 30 psi provides consumers with additional safety margins,” he said.

A Wall Street Journal report Wednesday also said that at 26 psi, Ford Explorers have a very small margin of safety to avoid rollovers during sharp turns when tires fail.

But Ford spokesman Jason Vines said the company won’t raise the required tire pressure. He said that Firestone warrantied the tires at 26 psi for 11 years, and that Goodyear tires on Explorers inflated to 26 psi have not shown the failure rate of the Firestone models.

“For the better of 10 years, Firestone agreed and repeatedly supported the recommended tire pressure of 26 psi,” Ford vice president Helen Petrauskas said.

Firestone on Defensive

In prepared testimony for the committee, John Lampe, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone said both companies had thoroughly tested the tires and found nothing wrong.

“The testing Ford and Firestone undertook before introducing these tires was thorough and complete,” Lampe said.

He admitted that there were some defective tires, but said the company still has no idea what went wrong.

“BFS recognizes that there was a problem with a very small percentage of the recalled tires. We must and do take full responsibility for these problems,” his remarks say.

The American version of Bridgestone’s stock, which is primarily traded on the Tokyo exchange, recently recovered slightly from an eight-year low. But at $129.0987, it’s still far from the $220 level it traded at before the Aug. 9 recall.

Bridgestone Fixed Tires

As possible further evidence that Bridgestone/Firestone knew about tire problems before this year, the Washington Post reported today that the tiremaker changed the design of its light truck and sport utility tires in 1998 to reduce the rate of tread separation. Many of the problem tires identified by investigators were produced in 1994-96.

Company spokesman Dan Adomitis told the paper that the changes were part of a “continuous improvement program” not addressing any specific problem, but that the company had found “a certain percentage of tread separations” in the tires.

The change involved widening a rubber wedge between the two steel belts of the tires. Treads often separated between the two belts in crashes investigated by the NHTSA.

Missing Tests

Today’s hearing comes the day after the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill to consider raising penalties for automakers that withhold safety data. Federal investigators previously said important 1996 testing results on Firestone tires couldn’t be found.

Sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the bill would require automakers and their suppliers to share more safety information with the federal government and significantly strengthen penalties for those who withhold key data.

McCain said his bill was “an imperfect piece of legislation” but added that because of the rising death toll attributed to Firestone tires it is important for Congress to act. Congress recesses for the year next month, and for the bill to become law, it must be passed by Senate and House committees and also by full floor votes of both bodies.

“There are some differences that we may have, particularly as far as criminal penalties,” McCain said, adding there is a “strong possibility that we could get some action before Congress goes out of session.”

New Problem for Ford?

Ford may also face new non tire-related trouble. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is opening an investigation on reports of problems with front suspension systems in its Explorers.

According to NHTSA, there have been 14 customer complaints to Ford about front swaybar links on 1995 and 1996 model Explorers. Swaybars help keep the vehicles level on turns and are vital to sport utility vehicles, which are more prone to rollover crashes than cars. Ford insists the swaybar problems are not safety-related and that there have been no reports of accidents or injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now says 101 people died in crashes involving tread separation on Firestone tires between 1992 and 1999. In addition, there were more than 400 injuries and 2,226 complaints. Previously, NHTSA had attributed 88 deaths to the tire problem in those years. Most of those crashes involved Ford Explorers.ABCNEWS’ Lisa Stark, Dennis Powell, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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