Safety group, lawyers call on Firestone, Ford to widen tire recall

DETROIT - Safety advocates and personal injury lawyers demanded that Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. widen the Firestone tire recall Monday, warning that other sizes have the same problems.

Bridgestone/Firestone said last week it would recall all of the P235/75R15 size radial ATX and ATX II tires, and Wilderness AT tires of the same size made in Decatur, Ill.

Between 1994 and 1996, workers at the Decatur plant were on strike. Ford said Sunday that many of the tires being recalled were made at that plant.

The tires - most of which were installed on Ford vehicles, notably the Ford Explorer sport utility - are being investigated by federal officials in connection with more than 300 accidents and at least 46 deaths.

But the safety advocates and lawyers said the same problems that have been reported with the 15-inch tires affect all versions of the three tire models.

''The public can afford no further delay in getting these tires off the road,'' said Joan Claybrook, head of the group Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone said their data show the problems are limited to the tires recalled.

Ford replaced a wider range of tires, including 16-inch ones, for Explorer owners in the Middle East and Venezuela after getting similar complaints, but said the problems there were related to misuse - deflating the tires to drive on sand, for example.

Most of U.S. failures involved the tread separating from the tire, sometimes at high speed, causing blowouts and rollovers. Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have not offered a theory for the failures but have said hot weather plays a role.

Claybrook charged that too many unanswered questions remain about the safety of Bridgestone/Firestone's 16-inch tires. She contended the problem is a design defect, not poor manufacturing practices or hot climates.

Appearing with Claybrook was Ralph Hoar, whose legal consulting firm in Arlington, Va., focuses on product safety, and C. Tab Turner, an Arkansas lawyer who has sued Ford and Firestone over tire safety issues.

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said the recall was sufficient. He pointed to data collected by Bridgestone/Firestone and processed by Ford showing that the vast majority of complaints involve the models and sizes recalled.

''We're looking for solutions for our customers. These groups are looking for lawsuits,'' Harmon said.

According to the data analysis by Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone collected 2,030 claims for P235/75R15 tires made between 1991 and 2000, nearly 15 times more claims than for Firestone tires of any other size. Of those failures, 1,864 claims involved ATX tires, while 166 involved Wilderness tires.

Claims are based on property damage, personal injury and lawsuits.

Wilderness tires from Decatur in 1996 had a claims rate of 66 claims per million tires - ten times higher than Wilderness tires made at other plants. The claim rate for 1997 Decatur Wilderness tires is 34 claims per million, while the rate for all other plants is one per million. Between 1994 and 1996, United Rubber Workers union members were on strike at the Decatur, Ill., plant, and Bridgestone/Firestone used replacement workers and managers.

Bridgestone/Firestone said Monday there is no evidence the strike had affected tire quality, and noted that the plant has won quality awards from Ford and other automakers.

Four states - Texas, Arizona, California and Florida - were the source of 80 percent of the ATX tread separation claims; 90 percent were concentrated in 11 Southern states.

For people outside those states, ''the chances of this happening based on what's happened in the past 10 years ... are beyond extremely remote,'' Harmon said.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon filed a lawsuit Monday against Bridgestone/Firestone, saying the company's plan to stagger the recall violates the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act. South Carolina had been slotted for the third stage of the recall.

Other attorneys general are considering lawsuits as well, including those in Ohio, New York and North Carolina.

Christine Karbowiak, vice president of public affairs for Bridgestone/Firestone, said she could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but said the company had told Condon that South Carolina residents did not have to wait to get their tires checked out.

''Anyone who had a concern about their tires should visit their Firestone service center, and we would make them happy,'' she said.


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