Congress Grills Ford, Firestone Over Tire Tests

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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