May 29, 2001

Tire Threat: The Road to Recall

Venezuela Agency Files Request To Ban Sales of Ford Explorers

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela's consumer-protection agency on Tuesday asked the nation's attorney general to seek a nationwide ban on Ford Explorer sales, saying design flaws may have caused 50 road accidents since August.

Agency president Samuel Ruh met Tuesday with prosecutors to offer what he says is evidence that failing parts in Explorers contributed to 50 rollover crashes that killed 37 people since August.

Mr. Ruh declined to comment after the meeting, saying he was legally prohibited from speaking about the case. A source at the attorney general's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an initial study indicates that prosecutors have no legal authority to act on Mr. Ruh's request.

Venezuelan Ombudsman Germain Mundarain publicly criticized Mr. Ruh's action, saying that "protecting consumers' rights does not have to involve prohibiting the sale of the vehicles."

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the U.S. unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., and Ford Motor Co.'s Venezuelan units staged a bitter public feud last year over whether faulty Explorer design or Firestone tire failures -- or both -- were responsible for rollovers.

Ford maintained that "tread separation" in Firestone-made Wilderness tires were the "common factor" of the crashes. By August, the car manufacturer had refitted most of the 30,000 Explorers in Venezuela with different tires.

But Mr. Ruh said only one of the 50 Explorers that crashed between August and May was equipped with Wilderness tires, casting doubt on Ford's claim that the Explorer isn't to blame for rollovers.

Ford spokesman Ricardo Tinoco last week said his company was unaware of any accidents in Venezuela involving design flaws in Explorers. He added that the consumer agency -- known by the Spanish acronym Indecu -- has ignored Ford's requests for information on the 50 recent accidents.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is contacting Indecu to "discuss their concerns with Firestone tires and the Explorer," agency spokesman Rae Tyson said last week.

On May 15, Firestone's local unit said several Ford Explorers had crashed in Venezuela after being outfitted with different tires. Firestone subsidiary chief Humberto Gomez said the recent accidents showed his company's tires weren't to blame for Ford Explorer crashes in Venezuela.

Ford has sold 650 Explorers in Venezuela this year and expects to sell more than 4,000 by year's end, said Mr. Tinoco. Explorer sales in Venezuela fell 30% to 3,360 last year because of the tire controversy.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reports of at least 174 fatalities and more than 700 injuries among more than 6,000 complaints citing tread separations, blowouts and other problems with certain Firestone tires in the U.S. Most of the accidents involved rollovers of the Ford Explorer, the world's top-selling sports utility vehicle.

At the Venezuelan government's urging, Ford's local unit offered last year to compensate victims, but Ford didn't accept responsibility for the rollovers. Firestone, meanwhile, replaced Wilderness tires with Firehawk and Dueler models, also at the government's urging.