Firestone Tire Death Toll Rises

Oct. 17, 2000 -- As the federal government reported it had linked 18 additional deaths to failures of Firestone tires, the company announced today it was trimming production at three plants, in part due to decreased demand.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s new report brings the total to 119 fatalities associated with the recalled Firestone tires.

The agency reported it had now recorded more than 3,500 complaints associated with the tires, and linked them to more than 500 injuries.

Last month, the agency reported 2,226 complaints and more than 400 injuries. NHTSA said it is continuing to receive information related to the ongoing investigation.

The agency is looking into 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.

The majority of the tires were fitted as original equipment on the Ford Explorer, and most of the fatal accidents involved Ford Explorers equipped with the affected tires.

Ford and Firestone says nearly two thirds of the recalled tires have been replaced, and that the recall should be completed next month.

Layoffs, Cutbacks at Firestone In part due to decreased demand for its tires, Firestone announced today is was cutting back production at three plants.

The facilities are located in LaVergne, Tenn., Oklahoma City, Okla., and Decatur, Ill., where many of the recalled tires were produced.

Firestone said it would lay off 450 employees at the Decatur plant.

“These are the necessary, but painful, first steps to ensure [Firestone’s] financial health and viability,” Firestone CEO John Lampe said in a statement. Lampe said the cutbacks were due to excess inventory as well as decreased demand.

Lampe strongly resisted suggestions that the Decatur plant layoffs were connected to its role in producing recalled tires.

“We stand behind the Decatur plant, its employees, and its management,” he told reporters later today.

Lampe also stressed that the cutbacks would not affect availability of replacement tires needed to complete the recall.

Firestone Issues Report on ProblemOn Monday, a professor hired by Firestone to analyze the tire problems on Ford Explorers issued a preliminary report, based on lab and road tests and plant inspections.

Sanjay Govindjee of the University of California at Berkeley said he found evidence of slowly developing cracks in the “inter-belt material” of the company’s ATX and AT tires.

According to his research, the cracks in the layers between the tires steel belts grew and spread from the walls of the tires toward the center of the tread, forming bubbles and blisters that in some cases caused the tread to separate from the tire. His report did not suggest a cause of the cracks, however. The problem, he said, involved a “quite complex interaction” of the tires design, manufacture and loading conditions on the Ford Explorer.

Govindjee said he would offer a “preliminary technical report” in the coming weeks, and that his final report would not be ready until the beginning of 2001.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said Monday it would work to alert consumers that it will replace free of charge 1.4 million additional problematic tires not included in the recall, under an agreement with the attorneys general of 48 states and two territories.

Tougher Recall Rules on the Way

Largely in response to outcry over the lack of information about problems with Firestone’s tires, lawmakers have been advancing a bill that requires companies to provide more information to federal regulators about possible defects and toughens penalties for skirting recall laws.

The House and Senate passed the legislation last week, and President Clinton is expected to sign it into law in coming weeks.

A congressional investigation into the tire debacle led to allegations that both Firestone and Ford knew of the problems with the tires years before the U.S. recall and that the safety agency did not act quickly enough when reports about the tires surfaced.

Attorney General Janet Reno said last month the Justice Department would review whether any federal criminal or civil actions are warranted in the Firestone tire recall.