- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

The just-announced recall of more than 6.5 million defective and potentially lethal Firestone light-truck tires is a case study in venality trumping not merely basic fairness, but also in the flinty short-sightedness that often afflicts businessmen.

Though a problem with the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT light-truck tires used on such models as the Ford Explorer and other SUVs has been suspected for years, it took almost a decade, a NHTSA investigation and 46 fatalities to initiate a major recall. Firestone which was almost bankrupted in 1978 over another defective tire (the Firestone 500) and subsequent recall has apparently been loathe to initiate another potentially ruinous call-back. Estimates of the cost of the just-announced recall under the terms of which Firestone will replace, free of charge, all the affected tires, no matter how old or how much tread is left run as high as $400 million. Back in 1978, after the disastrous Firestone 500 fiasco, the tire maker nearly went belly-up.

The tires in question, size 235/75R-15, have been in circulation since 1991, and evidence that a problem existed started cropping up shortly thereafter. A slightly underinflated tire, combined with the heat build-up of constant highway speeds, can cause the exterior casing of the tire to separate from the main shell, resulting in an abrupt and potentially lethal loss of control of the vehicle. This is of particular concern on SUVs, which, as a result of their higher center of gravity, tend to be less balanced and thus more subject to loss of control.

NHTSA has been investigating hundreds of complaints about the tires and both Firestone and the Ford Motor Co. have settled scores of lawsuits brought by or on behalf of people injured or killed in accidents that were attributed to tire failure. Nearly 4 million Ford Explorers have been built with the Firestone tires installed at the factory as original equipment.

That mistakes happen is certainly understandable, and few reasonable people would hold Firestone or Ford in disdain for an unforeseen manufacturing problem. The bad taste in arises out of the suspicion that these companies, after having become aware of a potentially serious defect, did not take immediate steps to make it right. Odds are good the marketplace will exact appropriate retribution, tit for tat.

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