By STEPHEN POWER and TIMOTHY AEPPEL
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- House lawmakers plan to call executives of Ford Motor
Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. back to Washington this week to
answer questions about internal test data that may shed light on how
early the companies discovered defects in Firestone tires.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), who is overseeing a
House investigation of the massive recall, has
scheduled hearings for Thursday that will focus
on whether the companies adequately tested
the tires in "real-world situations," his
spokesman, Ken Johnson, said.
Firestone announced last month it would recall 6.5 million 15-inch ATX,
ATX II and Wilderness tires, after the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration reported a sharp rise in accidents involving the tires,
largely on Ford Explorers and light trucks. The agency has reported
more than 1,400 complaints, 88 deaths and 250 injuries stemming from
accidents during the past decade in which Firestone tire treads
mysteriously blew off.
The hearings also will give lawmakers a chance to build support for
legislation to boost federal regulators' budgets and sharpen their
"We are going to produce a bill that's going to be
signed into law by the president before
adjournment," Mr. Johnson said. "Anybody who
gets in the way of this will end up getting
steamrolled. Congress is mad, and the American
public is demanding action. You don't want to be
opposite that tag team."
Separately, Venezuela's National Assembly voted to
open an investigation into 46 deaths blamed on
accidents involving Firestone tires. Lawmakers there
will likely ask the presidents of both Ford's and
Firestone's local subsidiaries to testify. Venezuela's
consumer protection agency, Indecu, is also
investigating the suspension and speed-control module on Ford
Many of the recalled tires were installed as original equipment on Ford
Explorers. In recent weeks, Ford executives have blamed the accidents
on the tires, while Firestone officials have suggested the Explorer's
design makes it unusually prone to roll over when tires fail.
Thursday's hearings will mark the fourth time in the past month that
Ford and Firestone executives have appeared before a congressional
panel to answer questions about the recall. Among the invited
witnesses are NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey; Helen Petrauskas,
Ford's vice president for environmental and safety engineering; Tom
Baughman, a senior Ford engineer involved in the tire-recall effort; and
Bridgestone/Firestone Executive Vice President John Lampe.
Ford officials, rushing to meet a Friday deadline for producing internal
tire-test data, sent 16 boxes of documents to Washington by
corporate jet. Mr. Johnson said Firestone officials had produced similar
test data. Congressional investigators are recruiting tire experts who
can help them sift through the material.
"It's imperative we have some independent analysts ... to give us an
accurate interpretation," Mr. Johnson said. "Since the data is so
technical, there could be a smoking gun in the documents, and no one
would see the smoke without some independent analysis."
Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said the company conducted "extensive
testing" of the tires in question. "Our attempt is to make it real world,"
Most of the tests that congressional investigators are asking Firestone
about were conducted in laboratory settings. It isn't unusual for tire
makers to conduct hundreds of examinations for a single type of tire --
studying everything from the vibration and noise a tire makes to its
ability to stop on different types of surfaces.
Firestone apparently has given congressional investigators an index of
tests conducted during the past decade on the recalled tires, but not
the actual results.
One person who has seen the index estimates it lists "1,000 to 1,200"
different tests, more than half of which listed the failure mode as some
sort of tread separation. The index has different codes, such as "tsep,"
which means tread separation.
Many of the tests appear to be either speed tests, where the tires are
run at high speeds to see how they perform, or various types of
durability tests, which look at how well a tire holds up under different
loads. The tests also include "sweep" tests, in which a tire is run on a
machine and the tire turned from side to side.
It isn't unusual for tires to fail during testing. Tire makers often say
reason they do the tests is to measure the limits of their products'
performance, so they can be sure they have built in a layer of safety.
Tab Turner, an Arkansas lawyer who often represents plaintiffs in tire
cases, agrees it isn't unusual for a tire maker to subject a tire to 1,000
tests or more during the course of 10 years.
"But there are certain forms of tests that you wouldn't normally run,
unless you're looking for a problem," says Mr. Turner, such as sweep
tests. "You don't do those ordinarily." But Mr. Turner, who has seen
the index of tests, says there is no reference to tire inflation. "So you
can't tell if they're testing at 35 pounds or 26 pounds," says Mr.
Tire pressure has emerged as a crucial issue in the Firestone debacle.
When tire pressure is low, sidewalls flex more than they are meant to as
the vehicle travels down the highway. All that extra flexing can quickly
build up high levels of heat inside the tire, which can damage the bonds
that hold the tire together.
Some accident victims' lawyers, citing internal Ford documents, have
speculated that the company believed a lower tire pressure would
provide more vehicle stability. That was a particular concern because
SUVs such as the Explorer are more prone to rolling over than
passenger cars due to their higher center of gravity and boxy design.
Firestone officials have recommended the tires be inflated to a level of
30 pounds per square inch. One reason Rep. Tauzin is so insistent on
seeing the company's test results is that its executives said during
hearings last week that they didn't know if the company had ever tested
its tires at 26 pounds per square inch, the inflation level Ford originally
recommended to consumers.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Tauzin and Rep. Joe Upton (R., Mich.) would
direct the NHTSA to overhaul its tire-test standards, adopted in the
1960s before the widespread use of steel-belted radial tires. The
legislation also would increase funding for the NHTSA's defect
investigators and require manufacturers to report defects on its
overseas vehicles, so regulators are no longer left in the dark -- as they
were during the past year when Ford quietly began replacing tires on its
The NHTSA said it had asked State Farm Insurance Cos. to provide
more information about claims involving the recalled tires, as well as
other models of 15- and 16-inch tires. The agency, which has been
criticized for not acting on a 1998 e-mail from State Farm about cases
of tread separation involving Firestone tires, is seeking details about
accidents that would allow it to determine how many accidents have
occurred involving the tires.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 13 foreign
and domestic auto makers, announced Friday its members would
voluntarily report to the NHTSA safety recalls and other safety
campaigns that are conducted in a foreign country on a vehicle or
component part that is also offered for sale in the U.S.
Separately, the Tennessee attorney general's office said it is
investigating reports that some independent used-tire dealers are
selling recalled Firestone tires. Once purchased, the recalled tires could
be traded by customers for free, new replacements under
Bridgestone/Firestone's recall program.
-- Joseph B. White in Detroit contributed to this article.
Write to Stephen Power at firstname.lastname@example.org and Timothy
Aeppel at email@example.com