June 25, 2001

                    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
                    was right.

                    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