By TIMOTHY AEPPEL and STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Federal safety regulators have received reports of 15 more deaths
linked to tread separations, blowouts and other faults with Firestone
tires, bringing to 103 the number of U.S. fatalities connected to an
investigation that began in May.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said it has
received 2,226 complaints, including reports of more than 400 injuries,
since opening its investigation of the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tire
recall. The agency previously said it had received some 1,400 complaints
and reports of roughly 250 injuries, mainly involving Ford Motor Co.'s
Explorer sport-utility vehicle.
Separately, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), who is
overseeing a separate investigation of the recall, said congressional
investigators have received documents from Firestone indicating the
company was aware in 1996 of "potential problems" with the tires in
In another related move, Continental General Tire Inc., pointing to a
"spike" in tread separation problems in the first seven months of this
year, said it is replacing 160,000 tires supplied to Ford.
Officials of Continental General, the U.S. unit of Germany's Continental
AG, and Ford announced the action Tuesday after meeting in
Washington with NHTSA officials to discuss failures of Continental tires
supplied for Ford's Lincoln Navigators, a luxury sport-utility vehicle.
"In this environment of Firestone, we want to make clear there's no
comparison to the Firestone situation," Bernd Frangenberg, president
and chief executive of Continental General, said in an interview.
The Continental tires didn't result in rollovers, deaths or serious
accidents, he said. Moreover, he added, there haven't been any
The Continental tires being replaced haven't shed their entire treads in
sudden burst. Rather, the company said the problem mainly involved
"belt lift" in the shoulder of the tire. That is when the edge of one of the
steel belts inside the tire starts to lift, creating cracks in the edge of the
tire. In some cases, this causes sections of the tread to come off.
Mr. Frangenberg said the problem "manifested itself to us within the last
four weeks," adding that the company received a surge of 30 claims in
the U.S. for vehicle damage caused by pieces of tread coming loose in
the first seven months of this year. The timing of the tire maker's
response is crucial, since many critics are questioning whether Ford and
Firestone dragged their feet in acknowledging and responding to
problems with Firestone tires.
Continental did have problems with tires in Saudi Arabia last year. But
Mr. Frangenberg said the company considered those isolated cases.
Critics may also wonder whether changes to Continental's tire design
suggest the company knew it had a problem much earlier. In March
1998, Continental changed the profile of the tread, giving it a flatter
surface. The company said it made the change to give the Navigator a
smoother ride. But the change in the tread not only made it run
smoother, it made it more durable. The new design was less prone to
building up heat, which can lead to tread separation.
Mr. Frangenberg said the changes weren't made because the old design
was inadequate. "When we made the change in March 1998, it did
improve the robustness of the tire," he said. "But only after 36 months
did we realize we have these segments [of tread] coming off in extreme
Continental has supplied tires for the Navigator since the vehicle was
introduced in the 1998 model year. The recall is targeted at the 16-inch
tires produced before March 1998. Continental estimates the voluntary
recall will affect 140,000 tires supplied on new Navigators as well as
20,000 sold as replacement tires.
Continental also supplied Ford with 17-inch tires for the Navigator that
initially were offered as an option and now are standard. Those aren't
subject to the replacement program. The tire maker estimates it will
take six to eight weeks to complete the recall. The company said it has
sent 10,000 replacement tires to dealers in the U.S. and expects to
have shipped 30,000 by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the investigation into the Firestone tire
problems suggests the tire maker had earlier indications of a potential
Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Tauzin, said company documents
indicate that in 1996 Firestone took 18 tires off its production lines for
random tests of their durability at high speeds, using guidelines
approved by the Society of Automotive Engineers. The tests show that
eight tires failed, seven of which were from the Firestone's Decatur, Ill.,
plant. A notation in the documents also indicates Firestone made some
changes in its manufacturing process in 1997, Mr. Johnson said. As a
result, investigators have asked Firestone to turn over all its audit
information, as well as an explanation of what corrective actions in
manufacturing the company took in 1997 and why they were taken.
Mr. Johnson said investigators still are trying to verify claims by Ford
that the company conducted tests on the recalled tires before this year
on its popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle. The company has provided
investigators with a sworn affidavit from a former Ford engineer who
says he conducted tests on the tires in question at 26 pounds per
square inch in 1989 in 90-degree heat at 90 miles per hour for 200
miles. But the affidavit doesn't clearly indicate which vehicle the tires
were tested on, Mr. Johnson said. Investigators planned to interview
the engineer late Tuesday to find out whether the vehicle in question
was an Explorer.
Firestone said it believes the 1996 test was one that showed failures in
the sidewall of the tire, not tread separation, so it couldn't have given
the company an earlier indication of the tread-separation problem that
ultimately led to the recall. "This isn't a failure we saw in the real world,"
Julia Sutherland, a Firestone spokeswoman, said, "but one we saw in
tests, and we corrected it." Firestone said it didn't change the design of
the tire as a result of this test, but the spokeswoman was unable to
describe what corrective action was taken.
Rep. Tauzin is scheduled to chair another hearing on the recall Thursday
to examine the tests Ford and Firestone conducted to be sure the tires
Write to Timothy Aeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org and Stephen
Power at email@example.com