By CLARE ANSBERRY, TIMOTHY AEPPEL and STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
As safety concerns about the nation's tires grow, Continental General
Tire Inc. is facing renewed scrutiny over a line of tires allegedly linked to
at least 18 fatalities, most involving rollovers on Ford Motor Co.'s
Bronco II sport-utility vehicle.
The tires were the focus of a four-month investigation by the U.S.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1993. The NHTSA
closed its inquiry, saying that the failure and rollover rates weren't
higher than those of Bronco IIs equipped with other tires. At that point,
the tires allegedly were linked to five deaths. Continental General is the
U.S. division of Germany's Continental AG.
But plaintiffs attorneys in civil cases currently pending against
Continental General and Ford say there are inconsistencies in figures
supplied to the NHTSA in the earlier investigation. According to court
documents released this week, Continental told the NHTSA it had made
1.2 million GT 52S tires, most as original equipment on 1986-1988
Bronco IIs, while Ford said it had sold about 42,000 Bronco IIs with
those tires, suggesting a far smaller number of GT 52S tires.
NHTSA uses tire-production figures to determine whether the
percentage of defective tires is high in a given population of tires. If so,
the agency is more likely to press for a recall. An NHTSA spokesman
declined Tuesday to comment on whether the agency would reopen an
investigation. "We're not planning on doing anything at the moment,"
an NHTSA official said, adding that the agency hadn't yet received
documentary evidence in the matter.
The matter arises as the massive tire recall by Bridgestone/Firestone
Inc. sparks questions by congressional investigators and consumer
advocates about tire safety. Continental itself recently agreed to replace
160,000 tires supplied to Ford for use on the Lincoln Navigator because
of tread separation. None of those Continental tires were involved in
Continental spokesman Daryl Hollnagel defended the validity of the
information the company provided to the NHTSA during the 1993
investigation, and said he couldn't explain why Ford had "inconsistent"
data. Tuesday, Ford said it stands by the information it provided the
Court documents also indicate the NHTSA wasn't given internal
Continental memos regarding a tire-replacement program in the early
1990s conducted by Continental with a major distributor, Big O Tires, of
Denver, that was prompted by high numbers of tread separations
occurring on the same type of tires that subsequently came under
investigation by the NHTSA. The memos were cited in a civil case
pending in state court in Fulton County, Georgia, on behalf of the
parents of a 48-year-old Missouri schoolteacher, Freda Kay Hall. Ms. Hall
died in August 1996 when the left rear tire on her Bronco II lost its
tread as she drove on a highway near Tallapoosa, Ga., causing the
vehicle to roll over.
Continental officials stated in a 1999 deposition that the replacement
program didn't deal with anything the NHTSA was requesting.
Continental's Mr. Hollnagel said Tuesday, "It was clearly not requested in
writing of us to give them any of that information." Mr. Hollnagel did
confirm, however, that Continental replaced Big O's unsold inventory of
the tires in question, but didn't consider it a recall because it didn't
involve customer safety.
James Pascover, a spokesman for TBC Corp., the parent company of
Big O Tires, said TBC only recently learned of the 1993 investigation and
that the company would cooperate with any NHTSA queries.
Michael Brownlee, the former head of NHTSA's Office of Defects
Investigation, is quoted in the same court documents saying he
wouldn't have closed the 1993 investigation had he known more about
Continental's efforts to replace the product. Mr. Brownlee, now an
auto-safety consultant, said Tuesday that Continental's replacement
program "sounds very much like a recall, and they probably should have
reported it to NHTSA."
Lance Cooper, an attorney in Marietta, Ga., who represents four families
including the Halls, said he is aware of 34 claims involving these
Continental tires on Bronco IIs.
Like the incidents involving the recalled Firestone tires, most of the
accidents and fatalities occurred in warm-weather states: California,
Nevada, Arizona and Texas.
Also, there is some indication, according to court documents, that the
two steel belts inside the tires separated from each other because of
problems with the skim stock, which is essentially the glue that holds
the steel belts together.
Write to Clare Ansberry at email@example.com, Timothy Aeppel at
firstname.lastname@example.org and Stephen Power at