Another Firestone tire under suspicion

By CARRIE JOHNSON

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In yet another blow to Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., federal safety regulators announced Friday they are investigating another model of Firestone tires, one commonly found on Ford and General Motors light trucks, sport-utility vehicles and vans.

Investigators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they will examine the frequency of tire separations and blowouts on vehicles equipped with Steeltex R4S and Steeltex A/T tires.

The Steeltex models are found on Ford F250 and F350 pickup trucks, Ford Excursion sport-utility vehicles, and General Motors Suburbans and G-vans. Steeltex tires also came as original equipment on some Chevrolet Blazers and Ford F250 and F350 trucks. The Steeltex tires are available in 15-, 16- and 16.5-inch sizes. The R4S is a tire designed to operate well in muddy and snowy conditions, while the A/T is marketed for use on all kinds of terrain.

NHTSA reported it had received 169 complaints about the tires, 167 of them coming after 6.5 million Wilderness, ATX, and ATX II models made by Firestone were recalled Aug. 9. A dozen people were injured and two were killed in crashes involving the Steeltex tires between January 1998 and the present, according to complaints filed with the agency.

The announcement didn’t say how many of the Steeltex tires were on the road or what model years are covered in the inquiry.

Public awareness of tire problems has increased dramatically in the weeks since the Firestone recall, and a NHTSA official said the number of Steeltex-related complaints stood out in that environment. "In an era of heightened awareness of tires, the number of complaints (here) rose above the rest," he said.

There are indications that Firestone had received complaints about Steeltex tires as far back as 1998. Officer Andy Vidaure, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said in a recent interview that his agency returned all of the 1,000 Steeltex tires used on its fleet of vans, pickups and SUVs because "we had had some experience of tire failure and expressed our concern with Firestone."

"We did not see it as a safety issue," said Vidaure. "We were just dissatisfied with performance for a variety of reasons."

Notes from an official in the Arizona public safety office dated Dec. 10, 1998, indicate that the department experienced as many as eight crashes from Firestone blowouts. "Almost all" were accidents with injuries, Vidaure said.

Firestone did not respond to a request for comment directly on the Arizona situation. In a statement, the company noted that NHTSA has not found a defect in the Steeltex tires, but has decided to "determine the facts surrounding complaints. … We have been and will continue to work diligently to fulfill these inquiries in a timely and responsive manner with limited staff and limited resources."

Spokesmen for Ford and General Motors said they would cooperate with NHTSA’s investigation, but that it was premature to respond more fully.

The latest agency inquiry comes at a particularly difficult time for Firestone, which is embroiled in a public relations counterattack against onetime partner Ford surrounding the earlier recall. It also clashed with NHTSA when it refused to recall another 1.4 million tires, forcing the agency to issue a consumer advisory instead.

Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive Masatoshi Ono reportedly will resign as early as next week from his post. And congressional investigators and federal regulators already are probing when Firestone and Ford executives knew about problems with Wilderness and ATX tires, which have been implicated in accidents causing more than 100 deaths and 400 injuries in the United States.

The move Friday by NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation is called a "preliminary evaluation," the first stage in the agency’s investigative process.

On the Web: www.nhtsa.govc.

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