Parsing Out the Firestone Blame
By HOLMAN W. JENKINS JR.
Nobody is likely to come out the winner from the mudslinging over the Firestone fiasco, but at least the underlying mystery is coming into tighter focus: The bigger screw-up was Ford's.
From the moment they left a dealer's lot, the Firestone radials on the Explorers were at a recommended inflation level that guaranteed they'd soon be running underinflated, thanks to predictable consumer neglect. Low inflation means more flex in the sidewall and greater heat buildup, leading to tire failure.
Ford recommended a lowly 26 pounds per square inch so the car's center of gravity would sit lower to the ground, making it less prone to roll over. One way to square the deal would have been to install a more heat-resistant tire. Yet Ford alone among SUV makers equipped its vehicle with tires rated "c" for temperature resistance.
To make the "c" grade, tires must be able to withstand two hours at 50 mph when properly inflated and loaded, then another 90 minutes at speeds of up to 85 mph. Not since 1968, when this standard was devised, has anybody's typical driving fit this description. In today's airbag-equipped cars, people expect their poor, neglected tires to carry them hour after hour at 85 mph.
His job on the line, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser has justified replacing 13 million tires by saying the aging Firestones are failing at an unusually high rate, which would hardly be surprising if they were a poor choice for the Explorer to begin with. But his profit machine SUV was already under attack for being an offense against the environment, and the latest update was late as technicians worked out last-minute bugs. Now summer is coming and the media are ready to pounce on the inevitable uptick in tread-separation accidents.
Meanwhile, his counterpart at Firestone, the newly elevated John Lampe, knows a scapegoating when he sees one. Faced with his biggest customer spending $3 billion to create a continuing news story that says Firestone made a bad tire, he fired his customer, ending what had been the oldest partnership in the car business.
Ford has countered Firestone's efforts to wriggle out of the defendant's box by noting the trouble-free Goodyears mounted on two million Explorers in the mid-1990s. But the Goodyears carried a "b" rating, the near-universal standard on most makes and models of sports utility vehicles. And the c-rated Firestones have served well enough on millions of Ford pickup trucks, which tend not to be taken on long-haul, high-speed road trips with the kids and dog in the back.
In the late 1980s when these choices were being made, Detroit had given up trying to wrest concessions from the United Auto Workers and turned to brutally squeezing suppliers. Out of this process came a Ford-Firestone combination that still nets out as one of the safest SUVs on the road. But the reign of terror established that the car makers were on top, so Ford can't get far with the argument now that Firestone somehow forced it to accept an unsuitable tire.
The sorry truth is that the episode is turning into a replay of the sudden-acceleration scare of the 1980s, when investigators looked diligently for a mechanical defect but found only driver error. Quietly, automakers began installing shift locks in new cars to make it tougher for drivers to launch themselves into orbit by stomping on the gas instead of the brake.
Now the industry is on the rack again for failing to adapt its products to how Americans actually drive: fast, without paying much attention to tire maintenance, and prone to panic and flip the car in response to a noisy blowout. Unhelpfully, the tort system makes it nearly impossible for companies to acknowledge in retrospect that their tire selection was not perfectly suited to how customers would use the car. If it makes Ford and Firestone feel any better, they can also blame higher posted speed limits in the hot, Southern states where most of the accidents have taken place.
One legal case that's been carefully watched was decided last year by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, upholding a $12 million jury verdict on behalf of a local couple who experienced a tire-related accident in 1991. Their story is instructive.
They were arriving in Florida on snow tires after a 23-hour drive, which began at 6 p.m. the previous day, after both had worked full shifts at their respective jobs. With sleep-deprived mom behind the wheel, their Volkswagen Vanagon was packed to the gunnels with four kids, luggage, a sailboat on the roof and another sailboat trailing behind.
Two years earlier, her husband had installed the wrong tires on the car, bought from a dealer who had been sitting on them in inventory for 10 years. At the trial, the husband further admitted to never checking the tire pressure. A service attendant testified he had noticed three months earlier that the snow tires were inflated to 25% above the recommended maximum.
The car hit a dip and the two rear tires unraveled. The wife slowed from 72 mph to 40 mph and continued safely for a distance of several hundred yards, then flipped over; she was paralyzed.
Out of this mixed morass of facts the jury concluded that Continental, the tire maker, was "strictly liable" for the accident -- i.e., the tires had been in an "unreasonably dangerous condition" from the moment they left the factory 12 year earlier. How so? Because Continental had installed a nylon cap over the belt assembly to discourage belt separation, so obviously it must have known the tires were prone to belt separation.
Firestone is being flayed in dozens of court cases for exactly the opposite sin, failing to install a nylon cap, which suggests there is no way for a tire company to win a belt-separation case. Indeed, Ford might reasonably hope the whodunit has already been settled in its favor in the consumer's mind -- to which end the company spending $3 billion to slime Firestone's tires can't hurt.
But don't expect to see Mr. Nasser dispatching an army of lawyers to defend Ford's choice of tire in front of juries. Look instead for an epidemic of new law school buildings named after trial lawyers and paid for with Ford's settlement money.