- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

The Firestone imbroglio appears to be widening as evidence mounts that the tire manufacturer may have used old rubber and corrosion-weakened steel to construct the tires suspected of defects and that Ford Motor Company may have suspected the existence of a problem for quite some time, but not taken action to get the dangerous tires off the road.

Former employees who worked at Firestone's Decatur, Ill. plant have said the facility was plagued with quality-control problems. According to ABC News, eight of these former employees have agreed to testify about the use of out-of-date rubber, that steel used to make radial coils was exposed to moisture which made them susceptible to corrosion and that employees even punctured bubbles in tires to cover up flaws. Firestone strenuously denies these appalling allegations and attributes them to disgruntled ex-employees being egged-on by trial lawyers looking to cash in on growing public concern about Firestone tires.

But a just-released study by Ford Motor Company tends to contradict Firestone's assurances. "The data is overwhelming" that the problem tires came from the Decatur Firestone plant, Ford engineer Tom Baughman said on ABC's "Good Morning America" program the other day. Another Ford spokesman, Jason Vines, said that "the data and the analysis of the data is that there's a problem with Decatur and that the other plants are world class …" and present no danger. Mr. Vines added that the majority of complaints Ford received about the tires suspected of being defective involved tires manufactured at you guessed it the Decatur Firestone plant.

The time period at issue has been narrowed down, too. According to Ford's study, most of the tires involved in separation incidents, where the tread parted from the casing of the tire, leading to instability and loss of control of the vehicle, were manufactured during a 10-month strike in 1994. Temporary workers and managers had replaced regular workers and managers and this may be the root cause of the problem, Ford suggests.

There is very clearly a problem, but it goes deeper than laying blame at the doorstep of Firestone and its temporary workers. The information leaking out, dribble by dribble, suggests that both Firestone and Ford had reason to suspect the existence of a pretty serious problem and looked the other way or quietly settled with the families of the injured. It's been six years since the period of the Firestone strike and at least that long since Ford had some idea that the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness light truck tires might be unusually dangerous. But the automaker kept installing these very same same tires on hundreds of thousands of Explorer SUVs each and every year. And Firestone did nothing, so far as available information would suggest, to rectify design or manufacturing problems.

We can only hope that Ford and Firestone are not as culpable as they appear to be. Such a cavalier attitude towards a problem that has possibly cost dozens of people their lives would be a shocking revelation about the ethics and priorities of these two large companies.

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