- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

From combined dispatches

Bridgestone Corp. said Saudi Arabia has banned the import of Firestone tires because a government safety agency has linked defects in some tires to fatal accidents involving Ford Motor Co. vehicles.
The Saudi Arabian Standards Organization issued an internal notification banning the import of Firestone brand tires, said Anitra Budd, a spokeswoman for Bridgestone/Firestone, the Tokyo-based company's U.S. unit. Bridgestone called the action extreme.
Ford had replaced Firestone tires on 6,800 Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport utility vehicles in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperative states including Kuwait in August 1999. The U.S. Justice Department is looking into accusations that Bridgestone and Ford conspired to withhold information about tire defects in overseas markets from U.S. safety regulators.
Bridgestone had said that it didn't take part in the Ford replacement plan in Saudi Arabia because there was no evidence of a tire design or manufacturing defect. Bridgestone said that the companies had agreed that the accidents were caused by under-inflation or customer misuse of the tires.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation May 2 on about 47 million Firestone tires that are linked to 101 fatalities in the United States. Bridgestone on Aug. 9 recalled 6.5 million 15-inch Firestone ATX, ATX II and some Wilderness model tires. NHTSA also issued a consumer warning on 1.4 million other Firestone tires on Sept. 1 after Bridgestone refused to expand the recall.
Bridgestone has spoken to U.S. trade officials about whether Saudi Arabia's ban is permitted under the rules of the World Trade Organization, which the nation is negotiating to join, the tire maker said in the statement.
Officials at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford weren't available to comment.
Internal Ford and Bridgestone documents, turned over to a House Commerce subcommittee, showed both the companies were concerned a tire recall in Saudi Arabia would trigger an investigation by U.S. safety officials.
Bridgestone said in subcommittee hearings earlier this month that Saudi Arabian consumers were releasing air from tires to ride in the desert and didn't return the pressure to normal levels before returning to highway driving.
Because of the reduced air pressure, more of the tire comes into contact with the road, building up heat that can cause the tread to separate. Many of the tires Bridgestone examined in Saudi Arabia weren't repaired properly, Bridgestone told Congress.
The House Commerce consumer protection subcommittee unanimously approved a bill yesterday that would punish auto-industry executives who withhold information on defective products that kill or injure consumers.
The sentence would be as much as 15 years.
The bill also would increase the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's authority to collect information about possibly defective products and expand its budget for investigations.
In Venezuela, sales of Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport utility vehicle, which has been linked to 47 deaths in the country, plummeted 33 percent for the first eight months of the year as safety concerns mounted.
The drop could quicken in coming weeks after Samuel Ruh Rios, head of Venezuela's consumer protection agency, or Indecu, said part of the shock absorber caused "friction" with Bridgestone Corp.'s Firestone Wilderness tires on one wreck-damaged Explorer. The rubbing could have caused the tires to blow out.
"We have evidence. We have photos," said Mr. Ruh Rios. "And it's precisely that part which Ford is changing on the Explorers."
Mr. Ruh Rios' findings, which he presented to the country's National Assembly yesterday, could strengthen support for the campaign by some congressmen to ban Explorer sales in Venezuela.

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