- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone faced off at an emotionally charged House hearing yesterday, continuing to blame each other for the 203 fatal accidents in which Firestone tires reportedly failed on Ford Explorers.
Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser told a House subcommittee that Ford decided last month to voluntarily replace 13 million Firestone tires on its vehicles because of persistent tread separations on Firestone Wilderness AT tires. The tires are standard equipment on the Explorer, the worlds best-selling sport utility vehicle.
"This is a tire issue and only a tire issue," Mr. Nasser told the House Energy and Commerce Committees subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection.
But Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive John Lampe fired back, saying the Explorers faulty design made the SUV difficult for drivers to handle, often leading to rollovers and creating a false impression the Firestone tires failed.
"As Ive said before, Ford can replace all of our Wilderness AT tires, but Explorers will continue to roll over. And we need to understand why," Mr. Lampe said.
"In the last 10 days alone, four people have been fatally injured in two separate Ford Explorer rollover accidents, again involving other brands of tires," he said, referring to accidents reported in Venezuela.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently raised the death toll linked to faulty Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires on Ford Explorers from 174 to 203.
Until now, government investigations have focused primarily on Firestone. Deputy NHTSA Secretary Michael Jackson said his agency is considering a request from Bridgestone/Firestone to probe whether the handling and weight of the Explorers could be at fault.
About 2,000 United Auto Workers driving Ford Explorers convoyed around the District yesterday morning and then rallied on Capitol Hill in support of the automaker.
The dispute prompted Firestone to sever a 96-year business alliance between the two companies last month, citing safety concerns about the Explorer and saying there was little trust left between the two companies.
The day after the Firestone announcement, Ford announced it would spend $3 billion to replace the Wilderness tires.
Although both Mr. Nasser and Mr. Lampe lamented the end of their corporate relationship, neither would admit guilt over the fatal accidents.
They accused each other of relying on unreliable scientific studies.
Ford studied two groups of more than one million Explorers, half with Firestone tires and half with Goodyear tires.
"The results are clear," Mr. Nasser said. "There were 1,183 tread separations on the Firestone tires. There were two on the Goodyear tires. The only variable was the tire."
Mr. Lampe said Ford used old Firestone tires and new Goodyear tires for the test. He accused Ford of engaging in a "diversionary tactic" to avoid suspicion among customers about the faulty design of Explorers.
When Firestone Wilderness AT tires were used on General Motors vehicles, only two tread separations among 3.1 million tires were reported, he said.
"The tests we did on our tires compared to the Goodyear tires were equal," Mr. Lampe said.
Mr. Lampe, in response to a question from subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, said no high rate of tread separations was found in Bridgestone/Firestone tests.
"Let me assure you that Firestone tires on the road today are safe," Mr. Lampe said.
In August, the federal government ordered a recall of 6.5 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires because of deaths reportedly linked to tread separation.
The Firestone president also said his company sold the same tires to Ford, "designed and built to the identical specifications," for both the Explorer and the Ford Ranger pickup. "Claims for tread separation on the Explorer were as much as eight times greater than on the Ranger."
However, Mr. Nasser said the Ford Ranger has a lower tread separation rate because fewer Rangers than Explorers are sold in hot-weather states.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said there was a "great deal of confusion" about why Ford decided to replace the additional 13 million tires.
He also said his committees investigators discovered that Ford replaced some Firestone tires with other brands that may have worse safety records. The replacements include tires from Goodyear, Continental and Michelin.
"Are we going to replace worse tires for the tires that come off these cars?" Mr. Tauzin asked. "That confusion to the American public is unacceptable."
He plans to turn over the committees findings to NHTSA. He urged the agency to develop clear information on the safety records of the different brands of tires within 30 days.
Mr. Nasser said the decision to replace the Firestone tires was "one of the toughest decisions for us."
He called the decision "a judgment call" based on the fact "our customers confidence in all of these Wilderness AT tires just wouldnt be there."

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