By TIMOTHY AEPPEL
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Talk about deja vu.
Hovering over Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s
current recall fiasco is an episode in the 1970s
that holds strange parallels to today: the
Firestone 500. That one is still the granddaddy
of tire recalls by dint of sheer size. Firestone
ultimately recalled 13 million radial tires -- twice the number targeted
this time, though the number is growing.
Then, as now, the company appeared blindsided by the furor set off by
the recall and made huge tactical blunders, such as initially trying to
blame customers for not taking good care of their tires.
"Firestone violated the basic rules of a recall, and they're doing the
same today," says Dirk Gibson, an associate professor at the University
of New Mexico who studies product recalls. The first rule is to act
quickly; back in the 1970s, the company fought the government for
months before agreeing to replace the tires. This time, questions are
being raised whether Firestone knew the problem was there for years
but turned a blind eye.
In the wake of the 1978 recall, there was a flurry of proposals for
regulatory changes aimed at tightening federal tire standards. But
nearly all of these moves were dropped or sharply watered down after
the Reagan administration came into office and proclaimed one its goals
to be lightening the regulatory burden on business.
One proposal was to require the auto and tire industries to come up
with a system for warning drivers when the pressure in their tires had
dropped dangerously low, either through a red button that would pop
up from the stem of a tire or a light on the dashboard. Underinflation
has arisen as an issue in the latest recall. That proposal was scotched
after the industry argued it was too inaccurate and costly.
Other proposals that were ultimately dropped included requiring tire
makers to print identification numbers on a tire's exterior, rather than
interior, sidewall, thereby making it easier for consumers to check the
origin of their tires. Regulators also proposed making mandatory a
voluntary system for registering tires sold through independent tire
Both proposals have implications for the current recall. Having a number
clearly visible makes it easier for consumers to check the origin of tires,
and a mandatory reporting system would make it more certain that
people who buy replacement tires are notified of the recall.
Most tire makers, including Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan's
Bridgestone Corp., and industry leader Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.,
say they favor updating the regulations.
Firestone's current tire crisis looks similar to the earlier problem --
treads peeling off tires -- though experts say the way the tires are
coming apart is different this time around. A 1972 letter from
Firestone's director of tire development to another company official,
released as part of the government's investigation, warned ominously
that problems with the radial tires were so serious that "we are in
danger of being cut off from Chevrolet because of tire-separation
failures." The problem with the 500 eventually prompted congressional
hearings. Guess what is happening in Washington this week?
Or consider this: In 1978, Firestone announced some consumers might
have to wait as long as a year for replacement tires, outraging
consumers and industry critics. Fast forward to last month.
And while Americans may think our society was less litigious in decades
past, apparently not when it came to tire failures. By the time Firestone
signed a final recall agreement with the government, in late 1978, it
faced more than 250 civil cases alleging faulty radial tires caused
personal injuries, a host of class-action suits and a virtual rebellion
among customers. At least one thing was different: The Firestone 500
was linked by the government to 41 deaths, whereas the alleged toll
this time is twice that and growing.
Most of the failures then, as now, were reported in areas of the country
with higher temperatures. Heat speeds the breakdown of any tire. And
as now, part of Firestone's defensive posture was to suggest many
consumers brought problems on themselves by underinflating their tires
by four pounds, the exact same discrepancy that has arisen now.
Firestone says its tires should be filled to 30 pounds per square inch;
Ford directed drivers to fill them to 26.
If the past is any guide, ferreting out the cause of the current tire
failures will be difficult. Only after federal investigations in the 1970s did
the cause of the failures finally surface. In its rush to adopt what was
then new radial-tire technology, Firestone had increased the level of a
compound called Resorcinol mixed into the rubber that is used to hold
the steel belts together. The problem is that over a longer period of
time, the more Resorcinol that is added to the rubber, the worse the
adhesion, according to Firestone's own experts at the time. Thus the
steel belts separated in the company's last tire crisis over 20 years ago.