September 26, 2000
Victims of Firestone Tire Crashes Call on Congress to Resist Pressure From Automakers, Enact Strong Measures
Automakers Lobbying to Water Down Bill, Strip Key Provisions
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Survivors of crashes caused by recalled Firestone tires today joined Public Citizen in calling for lawmakers to resist pressure from automakers to weaken legislation that would give auto safety regulators the authority to prevent others from being killed or injured by defective parts or vehicles.
Legislation designed to enhance the authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in jeopardy of being seriously weakened as it nears House and Senate action. Automakers with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have been lobbying furiously in recent weeks, trying to take the teeth out of some of the legislation’s most critical provisions — particularly criminal penalties — and strip others from the bill altogether. In addition, lobbyists have been loading down the measure by adding requirements for bureaucratic processes that could prevent the government from taking action for years.
The proposed legislation comes in the wake of 101 deaths and more than 400 injuries linked to crashes caused by tread separations of recalled Firestone tires, many of them on Ford Explorers. Documents have revealed that the companies knew for years about the tire defect but did not alert federal regulators or the public. In recent hearings, Congressional lawmakers acted tough on Ford and Firestone officials, but the most critical point is now, when it comes to crafting legislation, said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
Shawna Fruecht, a 36-year-old Naples, Fla., resident, recounted the physical problems she still endures after a July crash that occurred when a Firestone Wilderness AT tire failed on her 1998 Ford Explorer. She is plagued by migraines, has problems controlling her bladder, suffers numbness and loss of sensation in her hands and legs, and has blurred vision.
“What happened to me and my friend was horrible,” Fruecht said. “What’s even worse, though, is that it could have been prevented. I can’t tell you how important it is for Congress to listen to us and hear our stories. No one should have to lose their lives, or go through what we went through. And if Congress acts, they won’t have to.”
Julie Lockwood-Steinberg of Houston spoke of how shattered her family has been since her brother, Tim Lockwood, died in a 1997 crash. In that crash, a Firestone ATX tire made at the Decatur, Ill., plant lost its tread while he was driving his Ford Explorer, causing the vehicle to roll over. Tim’s roof was crushed, causing his neck to break, and he suffocated to death.
“There are some things in life we cannot prevent,” Lockwood-Steinberg said. “But we can prevent death and serious injuries from occurring when companies knowingly conceal information about defective products. If we change the laws and force manufacturers to recall faulty and defective products when they first learn of them, we can save lives.”
Legislation expected to be heard on the Senate floor later this week would increase civil penalties for companies that refuse to recall a defective part or vehicle; increase penalties for withholding documents; add criminal penalties for corporate officials; require manufacturers to report to the government warranty/adjustment data, claims information, deaths, injuries, lawsuits and consumer complaints; and require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue a new tire safety standard.
“These are routine, common sense law enforcement reforms that should be enacted immediately,” Claybrook said. “Unfortunately, while the automakers are keeping a low public profile, their lobbyists are trying hard to water down some of the most critical measures. Lawmakers need to remember that long after Ford and Firestone are selling new vehicles and new tires, the people here today — and many others — will still be living with their losses.”
Already, some key provisions have been stripped from the bill. They include: 1) a requirement that manufacturers give DOT an early warning if they have reason to believe a product is defective; 2) a requirement that used car dealers inform purchasers of a safety defect or fix it before sale; 3) a provision that would allow DOT to impose penalties through an administrative law judge within DOT without having to go to court to collect money; and 4) a provision that criminal penalties will apply only if a vehicle was known to be defective when first sold but not if the defect was discussed later and covered up, as in the Firestone case.
This is the first time since 1974 that Congress has moved legislation to enhance NHTSA’s authority to enforce the law. The automakers stopped another bill in 1985 that would have authorized criminal penalties. A document shows that Ford officials boasted about it at the highest levels in the company. Many of the provisions contained in the legislation will bring NHTSA up to speed with other federal agencies. For instance, NHTSA is just about the only regulatory agency without provisions for criminal penalties, and its civil penalties ($925,000) are well below what would be required to deter companies from wrongdoing.
“We need legislation that will require auto companies to tell the federal government about defects in auto parts and vehicles,”said Vickie Hendricks of Corpus Christi, Texas, whose 18-year-old son died in a 1998 crash of a Ford Explorer with Firestone ATX tires. “We badly need to give the government the authority to impose criminal penalties in these kinds of situations, because this would make the decision-makers think twice about letting people ride around in defective cars or on defective tires.”