- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

Tire maker Firestone's legal team advised Ford Motor Co. to keep information private about faulty tires in Saudi Arabia, according to a Ford memo released during a House hearing yesterday on Firestone tires that have been linked to 88 deaths.

The legal department did not want to recall the tires in Saudi Arabia, the memo said, because it didn't want to cause a stir in that nation's government or with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as incidents of tire blowouts mounted on Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles in the mid-1990s.

"People were dying, and you didn't do anything," Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Commerce telecommunications, trade and consumer protection subcommittee, said to the packed hearing, citing Bridgestone/ Firestone and Ford. Firestone recalled the tires in Saudi Arabia in August 1999.

The Japanese tire maker last month recalled in the United States 6.5 million of the 47 million tires 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT that have been made since 1990. Seventy percent of the tires are mounted on Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles, the nation's best-selling SUV.

Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive Officer Masatoshi Ono, company Executive Vice President Gary Crigger, and Bob Wyant, vice president of quality assurance, all said they did not know about the company's legal position.

"I was not aware of the legal department's position on that," Mr. Crigger said.

Through a translator, Mr. Ono added that as far as he knew, the recall in Saudi Arabia was done for "consumer satisfaction reasons."

Mr. Ono apologized to the families of Americans who have died or been injured in crashes linked to the company's tires.

"I come before you to apologize to you, the American people and especially to the families who have lost loved ones," he told a Senate panel in the morning and the House panel in the afternoon. "I also come to accept full and personal responsibility on behalf of Bridgestone/Firestone for the events that led to this hearing."

His apology did not placate all in the chamber.

"Where was your sense of concern, as a human being and a corporation, to yell: 'Look out, America. Danger is coming,' " shouted Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, at the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee hearing.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 1,400 complaints about the Firestone tires, including reports of 88 deaths and 250 injuries. The tires have fallen apart on moving vehicles, often causing them to roll over and resulting in the deaths and injuries of passengers.

Lawmakers yesterday accused Ford and Firestone which had been doing business together since 1906 of knowing the accidents were caused by the bad tires as early as 1992 but not disclosing the information because their officials were afraid of a costly recall.

"I believe all of the principal parties here today let the American public down," Thomas J. Bliley Jr., Virginia Republican, said at the start of the House hearing.

Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser, in prepared testimony before the House Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations panel, said his company's vehicles are safe. "This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue," he said, repeating the company's mantra.

"We have millions of Goodyear tires on 1995 through 1997 Explorers the same specification tire operating under the same conditions and they haven't experienced these problems," he said.

But National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Sue Bailey said many of the accidents were caused by a combination of the tires and characteristics of the Ford Explorer, which is more likely than a car to roll over.

During the ten-hour hearing, which stretched past 11 p.m., House members vigorously questioned Firestone and Ford officials, Ms. Bailey and consumer group leaders.

"This is very frustrating," Mr. Tauzin said repeatedly, once hitting his desk with his hands. He added that the lack of communication among the parties made it hard to pinpoint what went wrong.

Samuel L. Boyden, associate research administrator at State Farm Insurance Companies, the nation's largest insurer, said that he e-mailed the highway agency about 21 tire-related incidents in July 1998, and that he later called the agency twice to discuss them. But his warning went unanswered.

By December 1999, he had alerted the agency to about 45 other cases.

That NHTSA didn't investigate is "shocking," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

"It shocks me because these weren't just complaints," he said, referring to the fact that several fatalities were cited.

The agency had no written records of the calls. Ms. Bailey, who took over the agency three weeks ago, testified that as far as she knew, the e-mail had been filed shortly after it was received. The agency did not act because 21 complaints were not enough to begin an investigation.

Complaints about the tires grew drastically over the summer. Firestone issued a recall Aug. 9 after meeting with NHTSA and Ford officials, when agency officials suggested the move. By Aug. 31, the agency had 1,400 complaints.

About 75 percent of the accidents have occurred in the South and Southwest, where the warm climate makes blowouts likelier.

Sixteen countries began having problems with the tire models as early as the mid-1990s. Ford began a recall in those nations more than a year before the U.S. recall.

Mr. Nasser told the House panel that Firestone declined to participate in Ford's Venezuela recall.

When asked why not, he replied: "We just don't know. So when they declined, we just went ahead."

The company did not have to tell federal officials and did not do so.

He pledged to the House panel to voluntarily tell U.S. consumers of any safety problems that happen in overseas markets from now on.

"We will advise U.S. safety authorities of safety actions that are taken in overseas markets and vice versa," he said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, introduced a bill yesterday to require auto and tire makers, upon threat of criminal penalties, to tell the Department of Transportation within two days of overseas recalls.

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