- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone officials had to defend the seemingly indefensible during this week's congressional testimony about the Firestone tire problem. With the body count now set at 135 (inside and outside the United States), Firestone's ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires have become assuming the allegations are true the single most lethal automotive defect of the last 30 years.

It is certain there's a problem with them. The failure rates are more than an anomaly or statistical aberration. Too many of these particular tires have failed in exactly the same way (e.g., tread separation at speed) for that to be plausible. Ford engineers picked up on this more than a year ago, when evidence began to accrue that a problem existed with these specific tires and on a particular vehicle (the popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle). To its great credit, the automaker pressed Firestone, a major supplier with whom it has done business since the days of Henry Ford, for information and began its own independent investigation of the trouble well before any major publicity or Department of Transportation recall. "This is a tire problem, not a vehicle problem," Ford Chairman Jacques Nasser emphasized at a press conference held last week pointing out that something like 500,000 Explorers equipped with Goodyear tires of the same size and basic type had not suffered tread separation or similar tire-related failures.

What Mr. Nasser and Ford did not say is that there is a kernel of truth to the claims made by Firestone that lack of proper care of the tires combined with driving behavior is at the root of the problem. SUVs, by dint of their higher ground clearance (and hence higher center of gravity) are indeed more susceptible to roll if they are driven improperly, as if they were sports cars or normal passenger cars. There are small warning placards glued to the sun visors of most SUVs that read, "Warning: This is a multipurpose vehicle and will handle differently than a conventional passenger car. Avoid abrupt maneuvers and high speed." But that little caveat is about all the instruction people get. The instructions are duly ignored, of course and when the inevitable happens, it's the SUV that gets blamed not the driver who insisted on taking a hairpin curve posted 35-mph at 45-mph.

Weak tires combined with high-speed and inappropriate driving patterns are getting people killed. Until it is impressed upon the public that SUVs must be driven with respect and caution, the problems associated with them will not abate tire recall or not. That's a reality Mr. Nasser and co. should consider as they present their defense to Congress and the public. Someone needs to be honest with the public about SUVs before some bright bulb in government decides to pass another law "for our own good."

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