? Essay, Research Paper
Agency Missed Early Tire Warnings
In some Sept. 12 editions, a headline in the Business section misstated how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handled some complaints about Firestone tires. The headline should have said, as it did in other editions, that the agency missed the complaints.
By Cindy Skrzycki
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday , September 12, 2000 ; Page E01
On Nov. 30, 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a letter from a Ford Explorer owner who said his Firestone tire tread “peeled off like an orange.”
“Imagine my shock when the mechanics looked at my tire and told me I was lucky to be alive,” the letter said, adding that the mechanics told him that Firestone tires on Explorers “are known to lose tread and contribute to or cause Ford Explorers to flip.”
This was among as many as 26 consumer complaints about Firestone tires, filed since the early 1990s, that NHTSA overlooked in January, when reviewing whether to open an investigation into reports of Firestone tire problems.
NHTSA had missed the consumer complaints because of the way its database is organized: They weren’t filed under “Firestone” as tire problems; they were filed under “Ford” as vehicle problems.
NHTSA, the federal agency responsible for tracking information about potential auto safety defects, did open an investigation into Firestone tires May 2–after news reports of tire failures that resulted in fatal accidents. And NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said yesterday that the additional complaints would not have prompted the agency to move any sooner.
In the past, the agency has opened investigations with far fewer complaints. It looked into problems with Michelin tires in 1994 based on five complaints.
The overlooked complaints–detailing incidents of tire blowouts, tread separations and other accidents involving Firestone tires mounted on Ford vehicles–illustrate how difficult it has been for federal investigators to piece together a clear picture of what went wrong with the 6.5 million tires that Firestone recalled last month. The letters might have provided earlier clues to the scope and gravity of the problems–which have since been linked to 88 deaths in the United States.
In January, a safety-defects specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told his superiors in a memo that he had been monitoring Firestone-tire complaints for more than a year but had counted only seven in 1998 and eight in 1999 involving the type of tires that later would be recalled.
But the specialist had missed other complaints dating back several years because when he searched the database he looked for complaints listed under “Firestone ATX” and “Wilderness” (two types of the recalled tires). The data “indicates a slight trend of failures in Firestone ATX tires,” the specialist, Steve Beretzky, wrote in the Jan. 31 memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. But, he continued, “I don’t believe it is strong enough to open an initial evaluation.”
Beretzky said the number of complaints was small compared with the number of tires manufactured, and even when the agency called consumers in 1999 based on seeing a “similar trend,” the information gathered did not add up to a case.
NHTSA’s Tyson said that even if the agency had taken note of the additional complaints, the number was not sufficient to have prompted it to open an investigation at that time. Opening an investigation is among the agency’s first steps in a process that can lead it to order a recall of unsafe vehicles or auto parts.
Called vehicle owner questionnaires, many of these complaints include photographs of the accidents, insurance reports, and copies of letters and bills sent to Ford Motor Co. and Firestone for damage done to Explorers from tire blowouts.
For instance, on Sept. 7, 1997, NHTSA received a letter from an angry Texas motorist who said she lost control of her 1992 Explorer when her rear passenger side tire lost its tread:
“I hit an 18-wheeler and bounced off his truck–twice. I then crossed the median of Highway 288 toward oncoming traffic,” she wrote. “I have and will continue to tell everyone that these tires are a hazard and should be recalled.”
Tyson said it’s a quirk of the database that the Ford complaints didn’t pop up when Beretzky was searching for tire data.
But even without reviewing the full universe of consumer complaints, Beretzky said in his January memo: “It is also possible that the problem is much larger than our data is suggesting.”
In arguing against opening an investigatin, Beretzky noted in the January memo that when the agency had a much larger volume of complaints in 1996 on Goodyear Invicta tires, an investigation was opened but no recall was ordered.
Beretzky said yesterday that he couldn’t comment on the investigation.
NHTSA did note that its complaints increased dramatically after a Houston television station ran a story in February on problems with the tires.
On March 6, NHTSA issued an “initial evaluation” of the Firestone tire problem, two months before it publicly announced its investigation.
At that time, the agency said it knew of 25 complaints alleging sudden blowouts or tread separations of Firestone ATX or ATX II tires, resulting in nine crashes and four injuries. It said all of the complaints were received in 1999 and this year.
By May, when the agency opened its public investigation, it had counted 90 complaints. It found that 46 of those complaints were in the NHTSA database before Beretzky wrote the memo. And going even further back, it discovered that 26 of those complaints were logged in prior to July 1998.
That’s also the month the agency received an e-mail and documentation from State Farm Insurance Co., documenting 21 cases where the Firestone tires were implicated in accidents with Explorers.
By Cindy Skrzycki
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2000; 12:27 PM
The federal government’s safety agency reported today that fatalities linked to problems with Bridgestone-Firestone tires have reached 148, up from 119 two months ago.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said that more than 525 injuries have been reported to the agency, up from more than 500 when the last official tally was released on October 17. Complaints have risen to more than 4,300 from 3,500.
NHTSA recalled some 6.5 million tires for alleged tread separation problems on Aug. 9. The majority of the accidents and fatalities occurred on ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires installed on Ford Motor Co. Explorers here and in several foreign countries.
The agency is in the thick of investigating possible problems with the vehicle and the tires and expects to visit both companies at their headquarters in Akron and Detroit next week.
Since the August recall, there have been four fatalities. Also, five other fatalities occurred on tires that have not been officially recalled by the company, but are subject to a consumer advisory that was issued by the agency on September 1.
Firestone has said it would replace tires included in the 1.4 million covered by the advisory ? a variety of 15 and 16-inch tires ? but only if consumers requested the change.
Of the 148 deaths, NHTSA said 121 were reported directly to the agency, while the remainder were uncovered by Ford, Firestone and State Farm Insurance Co. in the course of the investigation.
There also have been reports of 53 deaths deaths linked to the tires and Explorers in the Middle East and Venezuela.
Firestone Narrows Flaw Probe
By Caroline E. Mayer and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 13, 2000 ; Page A01
A top Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. executive told Congress yesterday that the company has narrowed its search into what caused defects in the 6.5 million tires it recalled last month to two prime suspects: the “unique design” required to meet Ford Motor Co.’s specifications and “variations” in the manufacturing process at its Decatur, Ill., plant.
The testimony of John Lampe, Firestone’s executive vice president, was the first time the tiremaker has acknowledged that the problems with ATX and Wilderness tires, used mainly on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles, could be attributable to a manufacturing or design defect. Up to now, Firestone officials have said the tires failed because consumers didn’t take care of them properly.
The tires have been linked to 88 deaths and 250 injuries in the United States.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Lampe also laid some of the blame for the accidents that led to the recall on Ford. “We firmly believe . . . that the tire is only part of the overall safety problem shown by these tragic accidents,” he said.
Lampe said the automaker’s decision to set its air-pressure recommendation at a level lower than Firestone officials advised left “little safety margin” to guard against overloading the vehicle.
“Ford gives us requirements for the tire, and we design around those requirements,” Lampe said after the hearing. “We have been exploring a theory that the design specifications were too intolerant for small variations in manufacturing.”
Ford spokesman Jason Vines fired back last night: “We set the specifications, but we don’t tell them how to build tires. It’s up to the manufacturers to build them. It’s amazing that when push comes to shove, Firestone is abdicating its responsibility of being a tire manufacturer.”
Even more stinging to Ford, Lampe suggested during the hearing that there may be something inherently wrong with the Explorer’s design that makes the vehicle highly susceptible to rollovers after a tire has failed. “In most cases a vehicle that experiences a tire failure can be brought safely under control. However, we have seen an alarming number of serious accidents from rollovers of the Explorer after a tire failure,” Lampe said.
To underscore his point, Lampe added that “federal data shows that there have been over 16,000 rollovers with the Ford Explorer, causing 600 deaths. The tire failure has been involved in only a very, very small percentage of these deaths.”
In her testimony, Sue Bailey, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said, as she has before, “I think we’re dealing with a tire problem,” backing up Ford’s oft-repeated contention that the recall involved a tire problem, not a vehicle problem.
But she added that “as part of this investigation we’ll explore the possibility of a combination” of tire and vehicle problems causing the accidents. She said the Explorer “is part of the ongoing investigation because we are concerned about the rollover capability.”
The gulf between the two companies–which have been doing business for nearly 100 years–only widened when Ford’s chief executive, Jacques Nasser, testified after Lampe. He took Firestone to task for failing to share critical claims data with Ford that could have pointed out problems as early as 1998. “This is not the candid and frank dialogue that Ford expects in its business relationships,” Nasser said.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) characterized the deteriorating Ford-Firestone relationship: “It’s like tying two cats by the tail and throwing them over the clothesline and letting them claw each other.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, said there was plenty of blame to go around–even for Congress, which “sometimes interferes with government regulators in the prosecution of their duties.” He said he is asking the inspector general of the Transportation Department to review NHTSA’s handling of the recall investigation and determine if had enough resources to do its job.
McCain said he hoped to rush limited legislation through Congress before it adjourns in a few weeks to give federal safety regulators authority to get information about possible defects faster.
Reps. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairmen of two House Commerce Committee subcommittees that held a joint hearing on the issue last week, plan to introduce similar legislation today.
“It is awfully late, but I’d be awfully surprised if something didn’t happen,” Tauzin said in an interview. “When Congress wants to act, we can act. I think everyone wants to act.”
At the same time, McCain said he is writing a letter to urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to drop a provision, now in the funding bill in conference committee, that would bar NHTSA from implementing a system to rate the rollover propensity of SUVs until further study.
Carmakers have criticized the rating system as being scientifically unsound, but Nasser agreed to McCain’s request yesterday to work with regulators to implement an appropriate rating system “without the further delay of a study.”
Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater testified that NHTSA is paying more attention to tire safety, shifting $1.8 million to the recall investigation. The department also will ask Congress for permission to shift another $9 million of the agency’s funds so it can improve its database, hire 30 more investigators and update tire-testing procedures.
One point of contention between Ford and Firestone has been the proper air pressure for the Explorer’s tires. Firestone’s Lampe said Firestone originally had agreed with Ford’s mandate that the tires be inflated to 26 pounds of pressure per square inch. The Washington Post reported last month that Ford chose 26 psi to reduce the vehicle’s propensity to roll over.
“Problems can occur if and when the air pressure drops below the originally specified level,” Lampe said. “The entire issue of tire inflation pressure selected by the vehicle manufacturer must be addressed. Does that pressure provide adequate safety margin to guard against damage caused by underinflation and overloading?”
Lampe said Firestone now recommends that tires on Explorers be inflated to 30 psi. Firestone officials said they made that recommendation recently, before the recall was announced Aug. 9. Ford officials say it was only a day or so before the recall.
Staff writers Greg Schneider and Cindy Skrzycki contributed to this report.