By STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- In a stark demonstration of how much the Firestone
tire crisis has eroded auto makers' vast political sway here, industry
officials now appear resigned to accept new regulations that they once
Meanwhile, congressional investigators, continuing to probe how early
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. were aware of the
problem tires, said Wednesday that Firestone documents show the
company conducted random tests of new tires in 1996 and found that
nearly one in 10 experienced tread-separation problems, similar to the
events that have allegedly been linked to 103 deaths on U.S. highways
in the past decade.
Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., last month
launched a recall of 6.5 million tires, mounted mainly on Ford's Explorer
In a major setback for auto makers, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration said it would move by the end of the year to rate the
propensity of passenger vehicles to roll over, an event that can
compound the danger of an accident.
The agency's announcement came after a key legislator, Sen. Richard
Shelby (R., Ala.), agreed to rewrite legislation that would have delayed
the agency's implementation of its proposed ratings system for as
much as nine months.
Separately, the Senate Commerce Committee, whose chairman is Sen.
John McCain (R., Ariz.), voted unanimously to pass a measure that
would impose criminal penalties, including possible prison sentences, on
manufacturers who knowingly make defective products that result in
injuries or death.
"The Firestone case is definitely having an
impact on legislators," said Joan Claybrook,
president of Public Citizen, one of several
consumer-advocacy groups leading the charge
for criminal sanctions and federal vehicle-rollover
ratings. The case has "educated the public
about the failure of deregulation and the lack of
protection under federal rules," Ms. Claybrook
With congressional leaders hoping to adjourn by early October, it
remains unclear whether lawmakers will be able to make good on
promises to forward a measure tightening auto-industry safety controls
to President Clinton for his signature.
But the latest developments suggest Congress is moving faster than
some auto-industry lobbyists expected.
Documents obtained by House investigators show
Bridgestone/Firestone officials randomly tested 229 tires in 1996 at its
Decatur, Ill., plant and found that 31 failed, said a spokesman for Rep.
Billy Tauzin (R., La.), who is overseeing an investigation of the recall.
Of the 31 tires that failed, 20 experienced tread-belt separation, in
which the tread of the tire is literally shorn from the tire, the spokesman
The test results, which are expected to come to light during a House
hearing on the tire recall Thursday, measured the tires' performance at
speeds of up to 112 miles per hour for 10 minutes, Rep. Tauzin's
Firestone spokesman Dan Adomitis said he didn't have the 1996 test
results in front of him but added, "We do a lot of testing and a lot of
testing involves failures. In fact, they're an expected result within a
testing program because that's how we get information."
Meanwhile, Sen. Shelby's reversal to allow the NHTSA to go forward
with its rollover-ratings system was a serious setback for the auto
The senator, whose home state of Alabama has a DaimlerChrysler Corp.
plant that makes Mercedes products, had questioned the reliability of
the proposed system, echoing concerns by auto makers and even some
consumer advocates that the plan is flawed because it is based on a
mathematical formula, rather than "real-world" testing of the vehicles.
Just last week, his office said he would stick with a provision in a Senate
funding bill that would bar regulators from issuing such ratings until
after the National Academy of Sciences completes a study of the
"He perceived it was in the best interest of his constituents and
DaimlerChrysler to kill these ratings," said Clarence Ditlow, executive
director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy
Now, "he's beating a strategic retreat" in the face of an unpopular
political position, he said.
But the senator's spokeswoman, Andrea Andrews, said the legislation
would still fund a study by the National Academy of Sciences, though it
would not restrict the NHTSA to wait as long as nine months for the
study's completion, as the current bill does.
Several auto industry officials said they are increasingly resigned to
likelihood that public outrage over the Firestone recall will lead to new
regulations that the industry has long lobbied against.
Industry officials particularly object to the criminal sanctions in Sen.
McCain's bill, arguing such a move would discourage the industry from
the kind of informal information-sharing with NHTSA officials that now is
"We hope the Congress will ensure that careful deliberation is not
sacrificed for speed in responding to tragic yet extraordinary
circumstances," said Andrew H. Card, General Motors Corp.'s vice
president for government relations, in a prepared statement.
Industry officials expressed anger that problems involving Ford appear
likely to lead to a crackdown on all auto makers. "A misstep by one
leads to a punishment for all," one industry official said.
But the message the industry is hearing from Capitol Hill, this official
said, is that tighter regulation is inevitable.
"You can challenge it if you want," the official said, "but it's going
-- Jeffrey Ball in Detroit contributed to this article.