June 11, 2001

Tire Threat: The Road to Recall

Congressman Raises Pressure on Ford Via Letter to Agency About Explorer


WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators investigating the Firestone tire recall are under new pressure from Congress to examine the performance of Ford Motor Co.'s popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R., La.), chairman of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week to criticize the agency for investigating only the tires involved in the deadly rollover accidents that led to last summer's recall.

While stopping short of calling for a formal investigation of the Explorer, Mr. Tauzin asked NHTSA officials to answer questions about the vehicle's stability and handling. He also wants the agency to examine whether the same models of Firestone tires involved in accidents showed high failure rates on other vehicles.

A NHTSA spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Tauzin's letter to the agency. A Firestone spokeswoman also declined to comment on the letter.

The letter represents a major tactical victory for Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the U.S. unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., which is trying to shift regulators' attention away from its tires and onto the Explorer. The company asked NHTSA last month to open an investigation of the Explorer and has spent months cultivating relations with Mr. Tauzin, partly by hiring as a lobbyist one of Mr. Tauzin's oldest and closest friends, Wallace Henderson.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Tauzin's influence actually will lead to a formal investigation of the Explorer's design, let alone a finding of a safety defect. The NHTSA has never found inherent design defects in other SUVs that would make them prone to roll over.

In 1990, the agency closed an investigation of the Ford Bronco II without finding a defect, and it rejected a petition for an investigation of the Chrysler Jeep CJ around the same time. Similarly, in the late 1990s, the agency rejected a petition for an investigation of the Isuzu Trooper.

Nevertheless, Mr. Tauzin's letter sets the stage for what promise to be stormy congressional hearings later this month on Ford's decision to replace as many as 13 million Firestone tires that weren't subject to last year's recall. Firestone fired back by ending its business dealings with Ford in the western hemisphere. The tire company also said it no longer trusts the Dearborn, Mich., car maker and that Ford refuses to address safety concerns with the Explorer.

NHTSA officials repeatedly have characterized their inquiry into the Firestone recall as a "tire investigation."

Specifically, the agency is trying to determine whether Firestone should broaden the recall beyond the 6.5 million tires, mounted mainly as original equipment on Explorers, that were the subject of the company's announcement last August. The agency has reported 174 traffic deaths and more than 700 injuries linked to the tires in the U.S. alone, mostly involving Explorer rollovers that occurred after the tread suddenly separated from the tires.

In a written statement late Friday, Ford spokesman Ken Zino cited federal accident data that indicates the Explorer's fatality rate is 27% lower than passenger cars overall and 17% lower than other SUVs.

"We do not think there is any basis to support a separate investigation," Mr. Zino said. "Ford's testing, and that of all others known to Ford, confirms that Explorers and other sport utility vehicles have similar performance before, during, and after a tread separation."

If NHTSA officials decide to broaden their investigation of the Firestone recall to look at the role of the Explorer, it almost certainly would complicate their stated goal of finishing the probe by this summer.

One person familiar with the probe said the agency already is looking at tire failure rates for various sport-utility vehicles and is having trouble finding SUVs that closely mirror the Explorer's size and weight.

Mr. Henderson said he hadn't asked Mr. Tauzin to write the letter to NHTSA. A spokesman for the congressman could not be reached.