Tire Threat: The Road to Recall
Consumer Crusader Claybrook Finds Vindication in Firestone and Ford Feud
By CHRISTOPHER WINDHAM
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- When Ford recalled some 13 million Firestone tires
last month, it was doing something that hurt almost as much as
eating a $3 billion loss: The company was saying Joan Claybrook
Ms. Claybrook, president of the consumer watchdog group Public
Citizen that was founded by Ralph Nader, called for such a broad
recall months earlier. That wasn't new territory for her; in the late
1970s as director of the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, she pushed for what was then the biggest-ever recall
of tires, also from Firestone.
But Ms. Claybrook isn't picking sides in the heavyweight corporate
bout between Firestone and Ford Motor Co. over the safety
problems of Ford's Explorer sport-utility vehicle. Rather, she is
egging both sides on. In Ford's blasts at Firestone for defective tires,
and Firestone's charges that the Explorer rolls over too easily, she
finds vindication for her longstanding complaints against both
Suddenly, the bitter recriminations between them are providing a big
audience for Ms. Claybrook and her sharp critique of major U.S.
corporations. The attention is sweet after two decades in which the
tough government regulation that Ms. Claybrook advocates has
been largely out of favor -- and after Mr. Nader's spoiler role in the
U.S. presidential election last year raised fears that Public Citizen
would find itself in political exile.
Congress and NHTSA now are heeding calls to
probe more deeply into the Ford and Firestone
mess. And Ms. Claybrook has become a staple
on TV news broadcasts and talk shows about the
subject, repeating her denunciation of the "lethal
combination" of unsafe tire and unsafe vehicle.
"It feels good," says Ms. Claybrook. "Whenever
you do something right, it can only help your
Ms. Claybrook, 64 years old, has been engaging
in public advocacy since she wore a sandwich
board to tout her father's campaign for the
Baltimore City Council in the 1940s. She first made a splash
nationally as Jimmy Carter's choice to head NHTSA, where she
pushed for the earlier Firestone recall. Just as that recall
foreshadowed today's woes, she says the Explorer's stability
problems date from problems with Ford's Bronco that first surfaced
years ago. But the Reagan era reined in government regulators, and
even after eight years of Bill Clinton's Democratic administration, Ms.
Claybrook complained last fall that NHTSA's budget was 30%
smaller in real, or inflation-adjusted, terms than it was in 1980.
To industry representatives and conservative policy analysts, the
smaller regulatory role that Ms. Claybrook bemoans makes good
sense for American business and consumers alike. "Just because
you call something a safety regulation doesn't mean you're
protecting the public," says Wayne Crews of the libertarian Cato
Institute, which estimates that federal regulations cost the U.S.
economy $807 billion in direct and indirect costs last year. "The
government regulates too much."
For different reasons, some auto-safety advocates criticize Ms.
Claybrook's approach as well. Focusing on increasing the use of
safety belts, rather than targeting automobile defects, they say,
would be more effective in saving lives.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Claybrook is one of the last subjects that
auto-industry representatives want to talk about. Ford spokesman
Ken Zino declined to comment about her advocacy, while Jill Bratina,
a spokeswoman for Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp.,
offers only the observation that "she has obviously been vocal
about her feelings."
On a couple of fronts, Ms. Claybrook's current agenda is going
forward. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose
chairman is Republican Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, is
conducting hearings into tire problems. And in the wake of problems
with the Explorer, the Department of Transportation has said it will
conduct a preliminary look into the potential for a new "roof-crush"
standard for all sport-utility vehicles, a cause of Ms. Claybrook's for
But another priority -- tougher criminal penalties for auto makers
that conceal safety defects -- still faces a skeptical audience. Ms.
Claybrook isn't satisfied with the Tread Act, enacted by Congress
and the Clinton administration last year in the wake of the
Ford-Firestone debacle; it provides for jail terms of up to 15 years
and fines of as much as $100,000 for auto executives who conceal
safety problems. Ms. Claybrook says the bill provides loopholes for
executives to escape accountability, however, and wants to close
them and raise the maximum fine to $15 million. But she is getting
little support in Congress.
Write to Christopher Windham at