By NEDRA PICKLER
WASHINGTON – Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. on today blamed a rash of tread separations on a faulty tire design and manufacturing processes at its Decatur, Ill., plant, but also put some blame on the Ford Explorer.
After a four-month investigation of problems the government linked to 148 deaths, the Nashville-based tire maker cited the shoulder design of the 15-inch ATX tires and the unique way the rubber was processed at Decatur.
Another factor was the lower inflation pressure and higher vehicle load limits recommended by Ford, the company said. Ford says the Explorer isn’t the problem.
Bridgestone/Firestone said its research shows that its August recall of 6.5 million tires is sufficient, despite calls for it to be expanded to include more tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone Chairman John Lampe said in statement that the findings show that “our recall initiated in August was more than adequate to protect the public.”
The company’s recall, which began in August, is one of the largest in U.S. history. The tire problems have been subject to high-profile congressional hearings and investigation and prompted Congress to pass an overhaul of U.S. tire safety regulations.
As reports of traffic deaths mounted over the summer, the company was unable to explain why so many tires came apart on the road.
The report backs up the company’s contention that the problem is concentrated in Decatur.
The current recall is concentrated on – though not limited to – tires made in Decatur.
In its report, Bridgestone/Firestone blames the failures on a combination of four factors, including:
Ford recommended that Firestone tires on the Explorer sport utility vehicle be inflated to 26 pounds per square inch, while Bridgestone/Firestone recommended 30 psi.
A Ford spokesman, Ken Zino, said the auto maker is continuing its investigation and has yet to come up with a root cause for the failures. He said the Explorer’s weight has not changed significantly.
“In our discussions with both NTHSA and Firestone we discussed tire design and manufacturing problems, and we still don’t see the Explorer as the issue,” Zino said.
NHTSA links 148 deaths and more than 525 injuries in the United States to separations, blowouts and other tread problems in Firestone’s ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, 6.5 million of which were recalled during the summer, many made at the Decatur plant. Many of the tires were standard equipment on the Ford Explorer.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone officials briefed NHTSA on the status of the investigation last week. Bridgestone/Firestone officials met Monday with congressional investigators, while Ford officials plan to meet with them Thursday.
The Decatur plant uses a process known as pelletizing, where rubber pellets are blended with a lubricant to create the rubber that coats the steel belts of the tire, according to two sources familiar with the briefings who spoke to the Associated Press on a condition of anonymity.
This process is unique to Decatur. Other plants use a slab system that does not involve pellets.
The lubricant apparently causes a breakdown in the tire that can cause separation of the tread, the sources said.
Lampe said in the statement that the company is changing its manufacturing processes in Decatur so that it matches the other plants.
But the vice president of the United Steelworkers local 713 at the Decatur plant said it isn’t fair to drop the whole problem on the doorstep of one factory.
“I feel like they’re questioning our workmanship,” Harland Smith said. “We have tires out there with 80,000 miles on them. … We have workers at our plant that drive on them same tires and never took them in for the recall.”
Smith believes the tire failures more likely came from overall design problems and more significantly from the lower inflation pressure recommended by Ford.
“Underinflating the tires puts more heat and stress on them,” Smith said. “Most of the failures happened in hot states down south.”
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