June 19, 2001

Tire Threat: The Road to Recall

Death Count Linked to Failures Of Firestone Tires Rises to 203

Staff Reporters of T HE WALL STREET J OURNAL

On the eve of congressional hearings on Firestone tires and the Ford Explorer, federal officials increased the count of deaths linked to Firestone tire failures to 203 from 174, as more questions arose about the technical data Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. will rely on when they take their bitter feud to Capitol Hill.

Sanjay Govindjee, an expert hired by Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., last year to report on the root cause of more than 2,100 tread-separation incidents involving Firestone tires used on previous-generation Ford Explorers, said Monday that the tire company officials didn't provide him with certain data that he requested during his inquiry.

Dr. Govindjee, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said he wasn't shown certain information last year about changes made to a critical component of Wilderness AT and ATX tires. Firestone made that component, called a wedge, thicker and wider in early 1998, after a sharp rise in tread-separation complaints during 1996. The wedge is a piece of rubber inserted at the outer edge of the steel belts to dissipate stress that could cause the belts to fly apart.

"I'm a little perplexed as to why I wasn't shown certain data," about the wedge change, Dr. Govindjee said. "Clearly the wedge is important" in tread separations, he said. "The thing that's unanswered is how important is that change that they made." While it might appear that a thicker wedge is better, he said, that isn't clear without further research that he wasn't able to do.

Dr. Govindjee said he recently testified about this and other issues in a three-day deposition arising out of the litigation against Ford and Firestone. Dr. Govindjee said Ford lawyers questioned him intensely about what Firestone did and didn't disclose.

Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina said the company gave Dr. Govindjee "all information that we had that he asked for." Ms. Bratina said the 1998 change to the wedge was part of "continuous improvement."

"We were seeing there were more and more SUVs on the road, they were becoming heavier and as part of the continuous improvement we made the decision to change the wedge," she said.

Separately, Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive John Lampe previewed his testimony in a press conference, disputing the interpretation of his company's own warranty data that Ford has used to justify its recent program to replace 13 million additional Firestone tires that weren't subject to last summer's recall. Mr. Lampe again accused Ford of refusing to disclose to his company detailed data on the Explorer.

"Our tires are safe, and we're going to prove it. The Ford Explorer has a problem, and we're going to show why, and back it up with data and testing," Mr. Lampe said. Mr. Lampe strongly disputed Ford's assertions that Wilderness AT tires, particularly those made at Wilson, N.C., have higher failure rates than average for other tires, and are likely to fail at even higher rates in the future.

Firestone's own calculation is that of the 13 million tires Ford is replacing, 2.5 million have never suffered a tread-separation claim, and that the rate for the rest is "less than five claims per million tires produced," Mr. Lampe said. "It doesn't make any sense why anyone would want to replace good tires."

At Tuesday's hearings, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser is expected to lead off, followed by Mr. Lampe, and then by officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. All are likely to get grilled by House Energy and Commerce Committee members, led by Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, (R., La.).

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Mr. Tauzin, said Monday that committee investigators have evidence suggesting that Ford is replacing certain Firestone tires with other brand-name tires that actually have worse records, based on claims data.

Ford spokesman Ken Zino said Ford checked with NHTSA officials on the safety records of the proposed replacement tires, and then tested the tires extensively. "We are extremely confident that the replacement tires will be excellent choices for our customers," he said.

Mr. Johnson said the committee also has evidence that at least two other -- the 16-inch Wilderness HT and 15-inch FR 480 -- actually have higher tread-separation claims rates than the Wilderness ATs that are being replaced by Ford. The FR 480s, which Mr. Johnson said were used in the early-to-mid-1990s on Ford Explorers, have a claims rate of 43 per million, Mr. Johnson said, while the HTs, which have been used since 1995 on Ford F-150 pickups, have a claims rate of 49 per million.

Write to Joseph B. White at joseph.white@wsj.com, Stephen Power at stephen.power@wsj.com and Timothy Aeppel at timothy.aeppel@wsj.com