- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

The Firestone tire fiasco keeps on rolling along an object lesson in how not to handle a public safety problem. Though there is pretty clear evidence of some sort of problem with Firestone's ATX, ATX II and Wilderness light-truck tires, the company continues to point the finger elsewhere most recently at Ford Motor Company suggesting it is the inherent instability of the Explorer SUV and resultant "crutch" of low inflation pressures (Ford recommends 26 pounds per square inch rather than 30-35 pounds per square inch) that accounts for the failure of the tires.

Plausible on the surface Ford's recommended inflation pressures are somewhat lower than customary, and there are internal documents circulating within Ford that suggest the Explorer might do better in rollover-type testing with tires set at 26 pounds per square inch (psi) rather than 30-35 psi it is nonetheless a fact that not a single tire made by other manufacturers has failed catastrophically.

For example, 2.3 million Goodyear light-truck tires, similar in size and tread style, etc., to the Firestone tires, were installed on Ford Explorer SUVs and driven at the lower recommended inflation pressures with no problems whatsoever. People may have been driving their SUVs in a manner inappropriate for such specialty vehicles that is, as if they were sports cars or regular passenger sedans. But that doesn't absolve Firestone, or make the tires at issue "safe."

"If a tire were marginal," said Wade Allen of the Tire and Rim Association, "then it might be better off at 35 psi than 26 psi. If the problem is manufacturing or its design is marginal, or you are trying to run the thing at the max load, then you're going to be worse off at 26 than 35."

SUV haters, meanwhile, have already seized upon the fact that Ford recommended lower than normal tire inflation pressures as evidence of the "inherent dangerousness" and "instability" of SUVs. But the fact is that all tires are vehicle specific for example, high performance cars tend to have tires with higher inflation pressures, for maximum lateral grip and traction as well as tread patterns that make them terrible in the snow. But no one accuses the manufacturers of these tires or the makers of high performance cars of "defective design" because the vehicles and tires do not work as well in snow as, say, an SUV equipped with light-truck tires might.

Ford and the other automakers specify tires designed to deliver a balance between acceptable ride, controllability and road noise, to mention a few parameters. The fact that Ford specified 26 psi for the Firestone tires used on the Explorer SUV is not in the least remarkable. Recall the perfect safety record of Explorers equipped with Goodyear tires of the same style and inflated to the same 26 psi.

What is, however, quite remarkable indeed is the blame-shifting evasiveness of Firestone's response to an extremely serious problem that has, at this writing, apparently claimed almost 70 lives making it one of the single worst defective product cases in recent automotive history. The right thing to do would be to open the books, submit to an independent examination and if there is indeed a problem, make it right right away.

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