By STEPHEN POWER and TIMOTHY AEPPEL
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Federal regulators announced an investigation into Goodyear Tire &
Rubber Co. light-truck tires that have been linked to 15 deaths in
accidents involving tread separation, the same problem that led to a
massive recall of Firestone tires in August.
The National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration said it has received 37
complaints about tread separations on
Goodyear's Load-Range E tires, including
reports of 31 crashes in which 15 people died
and 129 were injured. Twelve of the deaths
occurred in the U.S., and three happened in
Saudi Arabia, the agency said.
Load-Range E tires have the highest
weight-carrying capacity of any light-truck tires
and are used mainly on commercial vehicles, as
well as pickups, large sport-utility vehicles and
vans. NHTSA officials, however, said they hadn't
determined which vehicles carried them as
Goodyear said about 35% to 40% of the tires
were sold as original equipment, predominantly
on DaimlerChrysler AG and Ford Motor Co.
full-size vans or 2 1/2 ton or larger pickups.
The rest of the tires were sold as replacements.
The problems are concentrated in Goodyear's 16-inch Load-Range E
tires. The company said it produced 21.5 million Load-Range E tires of
all sizes from 1990 to 1999, so the accident rate for the tires is "very,
very low and way below the norm." The 21.5 million figure includes all
Load-Range E tires, which encompass 256 different types, sizes and
brands, according to the company.
The Goodyear investigation comes just three months after Bridgestone
Corp.'s Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced a recall of 6.5 million ATX,
ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, most of which are on the Ford Explorer.
At least 119 people have died and more than 500 have been injured in
accidents involving the Firestone tires in the U.S., according to federal
Goodyear is fighting hard to keep from letting itself become another
Firestone. The company is trying to block a move in a civil suit in New
Jersey state court to make public internal Goodyear documents about
the tires now under scrutiny. A hearing on making a portion of the
documents public was recently postponed until January. Those court
documents contain information about a number of sensitive issues,
including production problems at Goodyear's plant in Gadsden, Ala.,
where a large portion of problem tires were made.
"Goodyear is trying to minimize the problem by manipulating the data,"
said Christine Spagnoli, a lawyer representing plaintiffs suing Goodyear
in New Jersey.
Ms. Spagnoli said complete adjustment figures that are held by the
company and currently sealed in court documents would provide a fuller
picture of the tire's overall performance. Trial lawyers have often
complained that such secrecy agreements prevent consumers and
regulators from learning about defective products.
A Goodyear spokesman said the company acknowledges that just two
basic types of 16-inch tires sold under a variety of names are
associated with every one of the 30 accident claims the company has
received so far. However, the company says those two types make up
the vast bulk of all Load-Range E tires. Goodyear said it produced about
19.8 million 16-inch Load-Range E tires from 1990 to 1999,
representing the lion's share of the 21.5 million total Load-Range E tires
produced in that time period.
For its part, Goodyear said it doesn't plan any special effort, such as
advertising campaign, to reassure customers about the quality of its
tires. "Are we going to be on the defensive about this? No," said John
Perduyn, a Goodyear spokesman, adding, "We know what the data are,
and we know these tires are perfectly safe."
Jack Trout of Trout & Partners, a marketing-strategy company in
Greenwich, Conn., said the Firestone situation shows the importance of
tire makers communicating openly with the public about potential tire
"They need to get on this quickly and be as forthright as possible," he
said. "But there might not be a need to weigh in with any special
advertising. Advertising will tend to raise the visibility of the issue, and
you don't always want to do that."
Load-Range E tires are sold under an array of brand names, including
Goodyear Wrangler AT, Goodyear Wrangler HT, Goodyear Workhorse,
Kelly-Springfield Trailbuster and Kelly-Springfield Power King.
-- Milo Geyelin contributed to this article.
Write to Stephen Power at firstname.lastname@example.org and Timothy
Aeppel at email@example.com