- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2000

A Senate panel pushed yesterday for tougher laws that would hold companies accountable for product injuries in the aftermath of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s recall of 6.5 million tires that are linked to the deaths of 88 persons and injuries of another 250.

This second-largest recall by the Tokyo company, a division of Bridgestone Corp., comes 22 years after it issued the largest recall in history of 7.5 million defective Firestone 500 tires.

The tires in both cases were recalled because of instances when they fell apart while a vehicle was in motion, often causing rollovers resulting in deaths and injuries.

Congress sought to give more power to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration after the 1978 recall, but no laws were ever enacted. At the time, lawmakers wanted to upgrade testing and safety standards, but those plans were dropped during the 1980s tax cuts.

This time lawmakers say they mean business.

"My concern is not to have this committee sitting here again in 20 years," Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.

Several bills were proposed yesterday that would impose criminal penalties on companies that knowingly release defective and dangerous products. The bills also seek to increase NHTSA's authority.

"The Firestone tire recall is just the latest proof that our laws in this area need to be strengthened," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and co-author of one of the bills. "This legislation is important because it will better hold companies accountable for withholding information about a defective transportation product."

Bridgestone/Firestone issued the recall on ATX and Wilderness AT tires on Aug. 9, a year after Ford Motor Co. began replacing those tires from its Explorer sport utility vehicles in the Middle East.

Ford, which has been doing business with Bridgestone/Firestone since 1906, last week replaced the tire maker as its exclusive supplier for the Explorer, the most popular SUV in the country.

Ford now has a contract with French tire maker Michelin & Cie SCA to supply some tires for its 2002 Explorer. It also is in talks with Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear Tire & Rubber for a similar contract.

Seventy percent of the defective tire models were mounted on Ford Explorers; the rest were used as replacements for other SUVs, certain pickup trucks and some models of Mazda and Chevrolet.

After its near-recall in the Middle East, Ford also replaced the tires on its SUVs in Asia and Latin America.

Jacques Nassar, chief executive officer of Ford, said he was disappointed to hear Bridgestone/ Firestone officials testify they knew about the pattern of tread separations on the tires.

He said the company repeatedly had denied such knowledge.

"This is not the candid and frank dialogue that Ford expects in its business relationships," said Mr. Nassar, who also told lawmakers he supports tougher laws against irresponsible companies.

Documents cited during the hearing showed that Ford asked Bridgestone/Firestone about possible defects when it began replacing the tires last summer, but the tire maker repeatedly said there was nothing wrong with its tires.

Internal correspondence at the company shows that Bridgestone/ Firestone executives were aware of the problem, yet they hid the information, fearing that a recall abroad would reach NHTSA's ears, and result in a costly recall in the United States.

Under current law, companies aren't required to tell NHTSA of problems with its products overseas, even if the same are sold within the United States. Bills proposed yesterday seek to change that.

"We should have full authority to get safety information from manufacturer about their claims experience, as well as warranty and adjustment data," said Rodney Slater, secretary of the Department of Transportation.

Accompanied by Sue Bailey, newly appointed administrator to NHTSA, Mr. Slater told senators that the department wants new legislation giving NHTSA more power.

Senators agreed. Yet some criticized the agency for not initiating an investigation on the defective tires earlier than May.

Bridgestone/Firestone apologized to the American public yesterday and said it will cooperate with government agencies to solve future problems.

"The tire industry, the NHTSA and the auto industry all need to work together to immediately detect and address tire problems and vehicle problems," said John Lampe, executive vice president of sales for the tire maker.

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