WASHINGTON - The first lawsuits alleging some Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. truck tires suddenly lost their tread were filed nearly a decade ago, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn't start investigating until May.
And that was nearly a year after Ford Motor Co. replaced Firestone tires on its vehicles in parts of Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Critics say the case illustrates a fundamental problem with the agency responsible for auto safety: NHTSA largely depends on manufacturers to police themselves and notify it when problems are uncovered.
''This has been going on for some number of years and the company (Firestone) never notified the agency, and that to me suggests a failure in the agency's program,'' said Joan Claybrook, president of watchdog group Public Citizen and a former director of NHTSA.
Some safety experts say NHTSA isn't to blame, but that Congress needs to grant the agency greater authority.
''NHTSA's doing as good a job as the authority and the weak teeth that they have,'' said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. ''They can only do what Congress gives them the authority to do.''
The Center for Auto Safety is suing Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford to expand the recall to all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness brand tires. Ditlow said the group filed suit this week because it believed it could force a wider recall faster than NHTSA, which often takes several months to complete an investigation.
Bridgestone/Firestone announced a ''voluntary'' U.S. recall on Aug. 9 of 6.5 million P235/75R15 size Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, often found on Ford Explorers. The recall came three months after NHTSA opened the investigation.
On Saturday, Bridgestone/Firestone announced it was on schedule to replace 1 million tires by the weekend's end. The company increased daily production by 7,000 tires at its U.S. manufacturing plants and began shipping tires from its Japanese plants to meet the heightened demand.
Bridgestone/Firestone also plans to begin airing a television commercial this weekend that will inform the public about the recall.
NHTSA is monitoring the recall and continuing its investigation into 62 deaths - all reported since February - and more than 100 injuries that occurred in accidents where the Firestone tires may have been a factor. Since the recall began, at least two other deaths have been reported.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey this week defended the agency's handling of the case. They say when they found out the tires may have been responsible for fatalities, they began an investigation.
''I'm proud of the agency,'' Slater said. ''I think the agency has done a tremendous job and continues to do a tremendous job.''
Still, Slater said he is considering proposing a rule that would require manufacturers to report to NHTSA when they are sued or have received repeated complaints about a possible defect.
''We can't monitor every court in the United States looking for private lawsuits related to a safety defect,'' said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson. ''That's not practical. But on the other hand, there's nothing preventing a trial lawyer from contacting us.''
NHTSA officials say Ford did not tell them about the recalls in Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries.
Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said the Middle Eastern recall started in August 1999, followed by Malaysia and Thailand in February and the South American countries in May.
Vaughn said there were many reports of tread separation on vehicles in those countries. He said Ford officials did not report it to NHTSA because they didn't see the same problem in the United States and attributed it to different environmental and usage patterns.
''It's very hot, people in these markets tend to drive very fast, full-throttle, for extended periods. We also saw poor repairs and overloading,'' he said. ''In the United States, you don't see the same usage patterns.''
On the Net:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov
Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com
Strategic Safety: http://www.strategicsafety.com
Center for Auto Safety: http://www.autosafety.org
Public Citizen: http://www.publiccitizen.org