Firestone Should Immediately Expand Tire Recall to Protect Public

Aug. 14, 2000

Firestone Should Immediately Expand Tire Recall to Protect Public

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Today, Public Citizen and Safety.com are calling on Firestone to immediately expand the recall of its ATX, ATXII and Wilderness tires. Currently, the company has recalled only the 15-inch ATX and ATXII tires in addition to the 15-inch Wilderness AT tires from its Decatur, Ill., plant. We will share evidence with you today that demonstrates the need for a much wider recall.

Specifically, the additional tires that should be recalled are the 15-inch Wilderness AT tires from the three other Firestone plants and all 16-inch tires.

The public can afford no further delay in getting these tires off the highway. At least 48 people are already dead in crashes linked to Firestone tires. There is ample evidence to show that vehicles owners with these other, non-recalled tires may be at substantial risk.

Despite the massive public concern and the obvious danger to owners of these tires, there are many questions that neither Ford nor Firestone have answered:

For example, why were l6-inch tires recalled in some foreign countries but not in the U.S.?

Were any of the Wilderness tires recalled abroad manufactured in plants other than Decatur?

How many lawsuits have been filed concerning the l6-inch tires or Wilderness tires manufactured in plants other than Decatur?

The claims data revealed over the weekend cover only personal injury or property damage, but not all tire failures. How many tire failures have been reported to Firestone or Ford?

How can Wilderness tire data be compared to ATX and ATX II data since the Wilderness was first manufactured in 1995 and the failures usually occur after significant usage?

What other tires were manufactured at the Decatur plant and why are they not also defective?

Why has Firestone requested confidentiality for some of the data it has submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transportation?

Why have Firestone and Ford insisted on gag orders in settled lawsuits, covering up all the information in the cases?

The key issue in this recall, which Ford and Firestone have so far tried to keep hidden from the public, is that the tire problem is a design defect — not a defect caused by poor manufacturing practices, worker unrest or hot climates. Rather than continue to obfuscate, Firestone and Ford should bite the bullet and think about saving lives, not their profits.

Another critical question is why NHTSA didn t know about this problem much earlier. The answer in part is the lack of a proactive program to identify defects other than passively through consumer complaints, and the lack of power to levy strong enough financial penalties to make sure manufacturers comply with the law.

In the past NHTSA had a nationwide network of repair shops to report possible defects. It urged attorneys who worked on defect cases to report information. It communicated with fleet owners about problems. It tried to find out about defects before lives were lost unnecessarily. These programs are not in place today.

In the case of Firestone tires, there are a number of lawsuits that have settled on the condition that the documents discovered and the expert testimony is gagged and kept secret from the public as well as the government. NHTSA has not subpoenaed this information even though it has the authority to do so. In short, the safety agency has failed to gather some vital information it has the power to secure and has failed to disclose some information it has received because of company claims of confidentiality.

We are today calling on the agency to secure all relevant information developed in lawsuits and to disclose this information as well as all material submitted by Firestone and Ford, and to require the recall of all 15- and 16-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires. Consumers should not be given replacement tires that are already known to be defective but have not yet been recalled.

Also, despite the catastrophic crashes involving these tires, NHTSA has allowed the companies to drag their feet, giving them two additional months to provide the information the agency has requested.

NHTSA has the immediate burden of uncovering the truth about these tires. The public is waiting for its auto safety agency to act.

For too long, the agency has neglected its role in detecting defects before people are killed and injured. For too long, the agency has been timid in dealing with the automakers. The agency should not hesitate to use its broad powers.

A related issue in this case is the lack of NHTSA authority to impose penalties that are strong enough to assure a company complies with the law. Now, the penalty is $l,000 per vehicle or tire not recalled and $l,000 per document not submitted, with a maximum penalty of $800,000 — chump change for these multinational companies. And there is no criminal penalty no matter how many people are killed by the product. And the statute of limitations for recall of tires is three years after the date of manufacture.

The NHTSA law requires a manufacturer to notify the Secretary of Transportation if it learns of a safety defect [Sec. 30118(c)], and it requires a manufacturer to send the Secretary copies of each communication to its dealers or owners or purchasers about a safety defect [Sec. 30166 (f)].

In this case, the companies have known for years, based on lawsuits alone, of safety problems with these tires and never notified the Secretary. And they did not send the DOT copies of the notices about the Firestone tire defect sent to dealers and distributors abroad as long ago as a year.

Why should they? If they could cover up the problem, they face only a miniscule penalty. In March, the DOT sent proposed legislation to Capitol Hill asking for the statute of limitations to be lengthened to five years for tires and for penalties to be increased to $5,000 per item, with a maximum of $4 million. It also asked for violations of reporting requirements to be subject to daily penalties for each day the violation continues, with a maximum of $5,000 per day and a maximum for related violations of $500,000. We urge the Congress the enact this bill immediately.

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Ms. Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981.

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