- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

Local car dealerships and tire retailers fielded hundreds of calls yesterday from customers concerned about Firestone's recall of 6.5 million tires but local drivers with defective tires may not get new ones for at least a year.

The recalled tires have been installed primarily on Ford Explorers, the most popular light sports utility vehicle in the United States.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., a Japanese tire maker, will enact the recall in three phases, starting with Southern states, where 80 percent of accidents related to the faulty tires have occurred. Because tire demand outstrips supply, District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia owners may not be able to get replacement tires until next summer.

The tires affected, on about 1.6 million vehicles, include the Firestone Radial ATX and ATX II, size P235/75R15, and Wilderness AT tires in size P235/75R15 produced at the company's Decatur, Ill., plant. Firestone stopped making the ATX tires in 1997, and Explorers sold this year do not have the Decatur-manufactured tires.

David Sauls of Gainesville, Va., has had chronic problems with his Wilderness tires.

"I'd like to get those tires replaced. I wanted to get them replaced since I got them," Mr. Sauls said.

Last summer, on a trip to South Carolina with his wife and young child, he noticed the treads on his 1997 Explorer's two front tires were extremely worn. He had the tires replaced at a Firestone dealer.

But that wasn't the end of his problems. His vehicle began to shake regularly. He returned twice to Firestone, was told the Explorer's balance was fine, and finally went to his Ford dealer who told him the same thing.

"[Firestone] overcharged me for the tires to start with … . The dealer told me the front end was out of line, and I had paid [Firestone] to align it," said Mr. Sauls, an unemployed mechanical designer.

Gary Crigger, executive vice president of Bridgestone/ Firestone, said the company does not know exactly why tire owners have experienced so many difficulties.

"We have not identified any manufacturing or design defect," he said.

The tires have been implicated in 46 deaths and 80 injuries.

Mr. Crigger said high speeds, high temperatures, low tire-pressure levels and high weight loads can contribute to blowouts and other damage. The company has recommended that consumers keep the tires inflated to 30 pounds per square inch.

He said 80 percent of accidents have occurred in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, the phase-one states. A negligible number have occurred in phase-three states such as Maryland, a company spokesman said.

David Champion, director of Consumer Reports magazine's auto-testing facility in Connecticut, said any tire can have the problems the Wilderness and ATX's are experiencing and data on these specific products are inconclusive.

"I think one of the reasons why we're seeing the large numbers of Explorers related to these failures is because of the large number of Explorers out there," he said. Ford has sold 3.6 million of the SUVs since 1990.

But one consumer advocate said problems are more pervasive. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the District-based Center for Auto Safety, recently spoke to a woman in Maine who had a blowout.

"The phased-in recall is inadequate, because some consumers continue to ride at risk," he said.

Local car dealers are trying to keep customers calm. Doug Dugger, general manager of Ourisman Ford in Bethesda, Md., pointed out that Bridgestone/Firestone made the ATX tires until 1997, and many consumers have since replaced them.

In addition, the limited-edition and Eddie Bauer Explorers do not have the faulty tires, Mr. Dugger said.

He said his dealership received 25 to 50 calls yesterday, after the recall was announced during a morning news conference.

Ford and Firestone dealers will look at customers' tires to see if they are eligible for recall. Area owners should be able to get replacement tires if they insist Mr. Crigger said his company is prepared to use other companies' tires if necessary.

"We believe [Firestone] will give us some flexibility," Mr. Dugger said.

Paul Stoney, a business consultant and Explorer owner who lives in Burke, Va., said he is fairly worried about the recall.

"I'm going to wait a day or so and see what they come out with" in terms of directions for tire owners, he said.

"I'm not going to not drive the car."

Owners of Explorers, as well as Ford Rangers and Mercury Mountaineers, which also may have the faulty tires, can look at the Department of Transportation number on their tires to see if they are eligible for recall.

Near where the tire meets the rim, the letters DOT are followed by letters and numbers. If those first letters are "VD," the tire was made in Decatur and can be exchanged.

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