By TIMOTHY AEPPEL and NORIHIKO SHIROUZU
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Attorneys general from 48 U.S. states and territories are stepping up
pressure on Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to better publicize the
replacement of 1.4 million tires that are not subject to recall but rather
the focus of a government consumer advisory.
The dispute underscores the complexities that
can arise when a federal probe raises questions
about the safety of a consumer product.
Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp.,
agreed in August to voluntarily recall 6.5 million
tires, which were linked to more than 140 fatalities in the U.S. and
overseas. But a month later, after the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration said it identified worrisome tread-separation problems
with an additional 1.4 million tires, Firestone refused to expand the
effort. The government couldn't order a recall, because it hadn't
completed its investigation.
Instead, Firestone implemented what it called a customer-satisfaction
program targeting those additional tires. Firestone said it would inspect
the tires for consumers and replace them free of charge if necessary or
if consumers demanded that.
The attorneys general, which have formed a working group to deal with
Firestone over recall-related issues, complain that the tire maker has
done little to promote the details of its customer satisfaction program.
Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eliot
Spitzer, says the Firestone program amounts to a "secret warranty," in
the sense that only those who learn about the program are able to take
advantage of it. Firestone says it hasn't tried to conceal the details of
the customer-satisfaction program from consumers, noting that this
information is listed on its Web site.
Separately, a Ford Motor Co. official acknowledged in an October 1999
internal memorandum that the company specified Firestone tires for
light trucks shipped to the Persian Gulf that were inadequate for the
extreme heat and harsh, high-speed driving conditions typical in the
region. Several people in the Gulf region died in 19 rollover accidents
involving the tires in question before Ford began replacing them with
Goodyear tires specially developed for that market, according to a
related, Sept. 15, 1999 Ford internal document. The Firestone tires sent
to the Gulf region aren't part of the company's recall.
"Firestone's position that the tire meets all quoted functional
specifications, and that it was not meant for the GCC market application
is confirmed by our research," Lisa A. Klein, Ford's executive director for
purchasing, said in her Oct. 1, 1999 memo to Carlos Mazzorin, the
company's group vice president for global procurement. "It appears that
Ford chose to use the North American specified tire in the GCC market,
and Firestone wasn't part of that decision."
This is partly why Firestone refused to shoulder any part of the $4.3
million Ford spent for the replacement, which it called a "customer
satisfaction" program and which began in July 1999. According to
another internal Ford memo dated August 27, 1999, and also written by
Ms. Klein, Firestone claimed the tires were made properly but not made
for severe driving conditions in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Ford sold 6,755 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport utilities
between 1995 and 1999 in the Persian Gulf region, according to the
Aug. 27 memo.
A Ford spokesman, Jon Harmon, said, "As we have already said in
testimony, whenever we heard incidents of tire failures, we asked
Firestone to investigate, and they repeatedly assured us in markets
around the world that there was no tire problem. So we acted alone to
replace these tires with Goodyear tires. That's what happened, and the
rest of this is all Monday morning quarterbacking."
-- Stephen Power contributed to this article.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org and Norihiko
Shirouzu at email@example.com