NHTSA: More Tire Deaths

With Ford and Firestone already under fire on several fronts, the federal government now says it knows of 88 deaths believed to be linked to faulty tires.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Ford Motor Co. agreed today to testify before a congressional committee looking into the recall of 6.5 million tires and said his company would release to the public documents showing “what we knew, when we knew it and what we did about it.”

Also today, the Venezuelan consumer protection agency urged criminal prosecution of Ford and Firestone for their role in deadly traffic accidents there. The Venezuelan agency, Indecu, charges the companies suppressed information about defective tires on Ford vehicles.

“Thousands of tires still on the road, must be recalled,” said Samuel Ruh Rios, the agency president. “Ford and Firestone are guilty of negligence. They lied and deceived customers.”

Ford CEO Jacques Nasser defended Ford against today’s allegations and blamed Firestone for producing bad tires. He called Rios allegations “completely unfounded.”

“We’ve had impeccable business practices in Venezuela and throughout the world,” Nasser said. “We’re going to work with Indecu to resolve this and we’re going to begin that very quickly.”

Death Toll Rises The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced this afternoon it has now received 1,400 complaints involving 250 injuries and 88 deaths in the United States believed to be attributable to faulty tires. Those numbers have increased from 750 complaints involving 100 injuries and 62 deaths.

The agency is investigating accidents that may have been the result of blowouts, tread separation and other problems with the Firestone tires.

Firestone announced the recall of 6.5 million Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX II tires in the United States on Aug. 9, three months after NHTSA began its probe, but nine months after Ford started recalling tires overseas.

Ford and Firestone have said they do not know the cause of the problems, but based the recall on data showing a complaint rate for the tires under recall far higher than for other tires.

In unrelated incidents, Firestone is facing a strike by 8,000 union members that may start Saturday and a California judge said he may order a recall of up to 2 million Ford vehicles, saying they are prone to stalling. (See related story.)

CEO Will Testify

At a press conference in Detroit, Nasser expressed sympathy to any victims of accidents due to faulty tires on the company’s vehicles.

“At this point it’s a very difficult situation to everyone,” Nasser said. “I’d like you to know we’re sorry that these tires are on our vehicles and I’m depressed about the resulting anxiety, injuries and deaths.”

Nasser has said he will attend House subcommittee hearings on Sept. 6. Previously, Nasser said he was too busy managing the tire recall, and would send subordinates to testify in front of the committee.

Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive Masatoshi Ono also is expected to testify at the House hearing. The Senate is holding hearings on Sept. 12.

So far, Nasser said, 1.5 million tires — or 22 percent of the tires being recalled — have been replaced.

Venezuela Points Fingers

In Venezuela, the president of the nation’s consumer agency said Ford and Firestone shared responsibility for the problems and suppressed information that could have saved lives.

“Both companies had knowledge of what was going on,” said Samuel Ruh of Indecu. “They played hide and seek with the whole world.” Ruh also called for compensation for the country’s victims.

Ruh claims that even with complaints about the tires coming in, Ford and Firestone held a secret meeting in early 1999 where they agreed to change the tire design rather recall tires. Ford eventually did issue a recall in some foreign countries in August 1999, and in Venezuela last May.

Because Ford and Firestone did not act sooner, defects could have resulted in deaths, Ruh said. Venezuelan officials said 47 deaths could be linked to accidents involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires there.

But Nasser insisted today Ford did not lie to the Venezualan government. “Is there any confusion down there? I’d have to say there is. And we will continue to meet with the government to try and clear up the matter,” he said.

Ford has called for owners to return tires on cars in Venezuela made at Firestone’s Decatur, Ill., plant, the same plant that made the tires recalled in the United States.

Firestone has estimated so far that the U.S. recall will cost $348.1 million. In addition, the tire maker could be fined up to $11,600 per Venezuelan complaint, according to Venezuelan paper El Nacional.

Strike One

If Firestone and the International Steelworkers union don’t reach a new contract agreement by Friday night, some 8,000 union members are expected to strike on Saturday.

Union and company representatives have been talking since March. The union represents workers in factories at Akron, Ohio; Bloomington, Ill.; Decatur, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa; LaVergne, Tenn.; Noblesville, Ind.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Russellville, Ark.; and Warren County, Tenn.

An analysis of data by Ford found that many of the tires were made in Decatur from 1994 to 1996, when workers were on strike. Bridgestone/Firestone used replacement workers and managers during the strike, but the company says there is no evidence it affected tire quality.

“We’re willing to work with them through the recall problem, but it’s time for them to get off the dime,” said Larry Odum, regional coordinator for the International Steelworkers union. “We’re not asking for a lot, but we don’t feel like they can get through this without us.”

State Investigations

In more bad news for the two companies, officials in Florida are using racketeering laws to open a “comprehensive investigation” of the relationship between Ford and Firestone, the state’s assistant deputy attorney general said.

“There’s some concern that both Ford and Firestone were not forthright with regard to the information they had available to them sometime prior to August of 1999,” Les Garringer, Florida’s deputy assistant attorney general in charge of economic crimes, told ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America.

Garringer’s office is using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — more commonly associated with organized crime investigations — to serve up two 14-page subpoenas demanding details of the companies’ relationship back into the 1980s. Responses are due Sept. 21.

“We’re looking for the entire relationship between Ford and Firestone from the beginning of the time they developed the tires that go on the Ford Explorer and other vehicles,” Garringer said.

South Carolina sued Firestone Aug. 14 over the company’s phased tire-replacement policy, which put that state as one of the last on the list for receiving new tires. Firestone backed off on the phased system under pressure from several states, said Phil Telfer, special deputy attorney general for consumer protection in North Carolina. The tire maker now allows drivers to replace recalled tires with tires from other manufacturers at $100 per tire, he said.

Also, NHTSA has asked Bloomington, Ill.,-based State Farm, which insures one in every five U.S. cars, for data on accidents involving Firestone 16-inch tires. The U.S. recall only involves 15-inch tires.

ABCNEWS’ Greg Hunter, Bill Redeker and The Associated Press contributed to this report.