Local News

NHTSA Wants More Info on Ford

Posted August 30, 2000 7:00 a.m. EDT

— The federal government wants more information from Ford Motor Co. about the overseas recall of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires that began nine months before U.S. officials started looking into whether the tires played a role in scores of fatal accidents.

Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Wednesday that the information Ford previously submitted ``raised some more questions,'' so the agency wants additional documentation.

The Firestone tires the NHTSA is investigating are standard equipment on the Ford Explorer and other vehicles.

Ford sent the federal agency 40 pages on the foreign recalls on Aug. 3, including notices sent to dealers and customers in those countries that described which vehicles were being recalled and procedures for replacement.

Now the NHTSA is asking Ford for information on Firestone defects that have been reported anywhere else in the world, details about its products in the countries where the recalls were issued and the speed rating of tires used on all Ford Explores sold oversees.

Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said Wednesday he did not have any information about the NHTSA's new request.

Ford was being criticized on another front Wednesday after a California judge said he may order a recall of as many as 2 million Ford vehicles over concerns that they are prone to stalling, and accused the company of deceiving federal safety investigators and consumers.

Ford denied the allegations.

Ford started recalling tires in the Middle East in August 1999, followed by Malaysia and Thailand in February, and Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador in May.

Bridgstone/Firestone announced a U.S. recall on Aug. 9 of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires that have been the source of hundreds of complaints to the NHTSA, including reports of 62 deaths and more than 100 injuries.

Ford officials said the company did not tell U.S. officials about the foreign recalls because they believed problems with tires in those countries were related to high temperatures and unique driving conditions, including faster speeds.

Ford officials in Venezuela on Tuesday denied charges the company withheld information about tires that may have caused at least 10 deaths, and also said the design of the Explorer did not contribute to tread separations and blowouts. Meantime, Venezuela's consumer protection agency said it will issue a report this week holding Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone responsible for the fatal accidents.

Sean Kane, president of Strategic Safety, which is researching the case for lawyers suing Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, said what NHTSA learns about the tires in other countries could be key to how the U.S. investigation proceeds.

``These are the countries who had the early warning signs,'' he said. ``To the extent that the tires are essentially the same tires, it's going to be very important for them to see why these companies initiated programs first oversees and not the United States.''

NHTSA officials have said they did not receive reports of deaths related to the tires until this year and were not told of the foreign recalls. They said they opened an investigation when they knew there was a problem.

Congress plans to examine the recall next week. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., will preside over a joint hearing Wednesday of two Commerce Committee subcommittees.

Tauzin's spokesman said Tuesday he was ``miffed'' that Ford chief executive Jac Nasser has declined to testify, saying he was too busy overseeing the recall. In his place will be Helen Petrauskas, vice president of environmental and safety engineering, and Tom Baughman, who led the Ford team that analyzed the Firestone data leading to Firestone's voluntary recall.

Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive Masatoshi Ono has accepted the invitation to testify.

Witnesses can be subpoenaed to testify, but Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said there are no plans to do that with Nasser.

``We were hoping that Mr. Nasser would testify voluntary, but now that he's declined we have important business ahead of us next week and we are moving on,'' he said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain also had scheduled a recall hearing for Wednesday, but pushed it back to Sept. 12.