- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2001

After almost a century-long intimate relationship, Ford Motor Co. gave the heave-ho last week to Firestone as a major supplier of tires for its new vehicles. Not only that, but the automaker has decided to "recall" all 13 million Firestone Wilderness-brand tires that came on various Ford vehicles made since 1996. The $3 billion decision, made public late Monday, is the final act in the drama that began last summer when a series of accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs equipped with certain Firestone tires many of them manufactured at a specific plant were involved in rollover-type accidents caused, at least to some extent, by catastrophic tire failure.

Ford for the first time publicly placed all the blame for the accidents on Firestone. "We lack confidence in the future performance of many Wilderness tires," said Ford President Jacques Nasser. "We want to act now" as a "precautionary and preventive step," he added, regarding the decision to include in the recall tires not originally suspected of having defects last summer. Mr. Nasser said that Ford´s in-house testing indicated that as the tires age, the likelihood of tread-separation failures similar to those that caused last summer´s highly publicized series of accidents could increase substantially.

Firestone counter-claimed that it was a design defect of the popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle that was at fault, not its tires. Firestone Chairman John Lampe said that his company intends to rebut Ford´s claims about the Wilderness tires and show "why our tires are safe and that there are significant concerns with the Ford Explorer."

This back-and-forth, of course, is of little comfort to several million owners of expensive Ford SUVs shod with Firestone tires. Actually, the blame can be sliced three ways. The first slice goes to Firestone because all evidence indicates that there was a quality control problem at at least one of its plants, the facility at Decatur, Ill. The next slice goes to Ford Motor Co. not so much because the Explorer was "defective" as such, but rather for allowing its desire to earn money from the sale of these massively popular vehicles to keep it from explaining to soccer moms and suburbanites that these vehicles are not cars and cannot be expected to handle like cars. Yet they have been marketed as such to consumers, which is unacceptable. And lastly, consumers deserve a slice of the blame themselves for failing to drive their SUVs responsibly.

While Ford and Firestone are certainly blameworthy here, each to their own extent, consumers who operate SUVs at high speed and throw them around as if they were Ferraris should not be surprised when they get into trouble. A great many of these folks would be far better-off in regular passenger cars, because they don´t need or use the capability offered by SUVs. Perhaps that is the larger lesson to be learned from this mess.

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