By STEPHEN POWER and TIMOTHY AEPPEL
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators plan to open an investigation into
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. light-truck tires that may be linked to
deadly accidents on the nation's highways, three months after a safety
recall of millions of Firestone tires.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to announce a
preliminary evaluation of Goodyear tires as soon as this week, two
people familiar with the review said. The evaluation, the first step in the
agency's investigative process, stems from complaints about
Goodyear's Load-Range E tires, used mainly on commercial vehicles, as
well as pickups, large sport-utility vehicles and vans.
Until now, NHTSA officials have said they were "monitoring" complaints
about Goodyear tires. The agency declined to go beyond that Monday
but said it was aware of 37 complaints regarding alleged failures of
these tires, including 31 crashes with 133 reported injuries and 15
Goodyear officials said the company has been in contact with NHTSA in
recent weeks, but hadn't been notified that NHTSA had opened a formal
However, an attorney representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against
Goodyear has talked with federal authorities this month and has sent
the agency documents that haven't been sealed by courts.
Goodyear says it has received claims involving injuries or fatalities
arising from 30 accidents since 1994, leading to 25 lawsuits, five of
which have been settled.
The federal highway-safety agency has come under intense criticism
from Congress in recent months for failing to act sooner to push for
the recall of 6.5 million tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and
allegedly linked to at least 119 deaths in the U.S. and about 40 deaths
overseas. Critics have cited a 1998 e-mail sent to NHTSA by State Farm
Insurance noting a pattern of 21 claims involving Firestone tires over
the previous six and a half years.
More recently, NHTSA officials have been embarrassed by cases in which
tire makers withheld information from investigators. The agency's
former chief defects investigator, Michael Brownlee, has testified in a
pending civil lawsuit that he wouldn't have closed a 1993 investigation
into Continental General Tire Inc. had he known about a quiet
replacement program the company conducted during the early 1990s.
Similarly, in the Firestone investigation, NHTSA officials have complained
that Ford Motor Co. didn't bother to notify them until last May that it
had quietly begun replacing Firestone tires on its overseas vehicles in
In both cases, company officials said they weren't required to notify the
agency about their replacement programs because they weren't related
to safety, and thus didn't fall under federal regulations that require
manufacturers to notify the government about recalls. In response,
Congress last month passed legislation to toughen reporting
requirements and penalties for noncompliance.
For its part, Goodyear maintains that in every case it has studied the
tire failures can be traced to factors such as overloading vehicles or
punctures, rather than a manufacturing defect. The company says it
has produced 27.5 million of the tires since 1990. John Perduyn, a
Goodyear spokesman, said 30 accidents arising from 27.5 million tires is
"pretty infinitesimal and lower than the norm."
Goodyear began investigating its Load-Range E tires at least four years
ago, based on internal claims data, and consequently began adding an
extra layer of nylon to help hold the steel belts in place. However, the
company took three years to make those changes on all the tires in that
Even as it was making those changes and as claims mounted, Goodyear
didn't notify federal regulators about its investigation -- or the fix it
made. The tire maker contends it didn't need to, because it found no
defect in the tires.
"In this case, they formed a team to work on the issue, identified a
problem, and resolved it, but they never notified NHTSA and they never
took the problem tires off the road," says Sean Kane, a partner in
Strategic Safety LLC, a motor-vehicle safety-research firm.
Mr. Kane likened the situation to Firestone. Documents show that
Firestone was aware of problems with its tires years ago, but failed to
notify NHTSA of its early concerns.
There are other parallels to Firestone: The Goodyear tire failures are
concentrated in hot climates such as Florida and Saudi Arabia and
involve vehicles with a high center of gravity and therefore a relatively
higher propensity to roll over in accidents. The accidents occur after the
tread and upper belt separate from the lower belt.
Firestone's recalled tires were used mainly on Ford's popular Explorer
sports-utility vehicle, which -- while often considered a light truck -- is
actually far lighter than the vehicles that use Goodyear's Load-Range E
tires. "With Goodyear, you're really dealing with a different class of
tires," said Mr. Kane of Strategic Safety. "These are tires made for
heavier duty, made for a real light truck."
Oddly enough, both Firestone and Goodyear took similar steps to
strengthen their tires. Goodyear eventually added the nylon layer to all
its heavy-duty tires, while Firestone attempted a similar fix to its
Explorer tires in Venezuela.
In the U.S., tire-industry executives have attributed accidents to drivers
who they said failed to keep their tires at recommended inflation levels.
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