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16 Inch Tires by Firestone Face Scrutiny - Chicago Tribune - September 26, 2000

16-Inch Tires by Firestone Face Scrutiny: Company, Ford Both Cite Low Incident Rate
By: Melita Marie Garza
Chicago Tribune
September 26, 2000

Woodie and Laurie Cleveland and their two daughters were driving near Tucson, Ariz., when they heard a loud pop. The family's Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle 'flew' off the road, witnesses said, and rolled several times before coming to rest in an irrigation ditch.

Harry and Martha Benford of Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood were a week into their vacation in Texas' remote Big Bend National Forest when a rear tire on their rented Ford Explorer failed, sending the vehicle into a series of rolls.

Both accidents involved Firestone tires that shed their treads, and both resulted in serious injuries.

But none of the tires involved would have been subject to Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s massive national tire recall. The reason: They were 16-inch tires, not the 15-inch models recalled by Firestone that have become notorious for their propensity to come apart at highway speeds.

Safety groups contend that many unrecalled 16-inch Firestone tires are also dangerous. They note, in particular, that Ford Motor Co. has replaced 16-inch Firestone tires on its sport-utility vehicles in North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America--but not in the United States.

A Tribune analysis of tire-failure complaints under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that of 1,261 complaints that appear to specify a tire size, at least 210 involved unrecalled 16-inch tires. Accidents involving 16-inch Firestone tires resulted in at least two deaths and 14 injuries under investigation by NHTSA, according to the analysis.

Moreover, there are at least 16 lawsuits pending throughout the country alleging failures of Firestone 16-inch tires, according to the Safety Forum, an advocacy group that tracks tire litigation for plaintiffs' lawyers.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety filed suit last month in U.S. District Court against both Firestone and Ford to force expansion of the recall to include all Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, regardless of the size or place of manufacture.

But Firestone has refused to add the 16-inch models to the recall. 'We look at adjustment data, testing and field surveys,' a Firestone spokeswoman said. 'That's the industry standard for fitness of duty. These tires have had a low incident rate; therefore we have no indication that there has been a problem.'

For Laurie Cleveland, that explanation offers little comfort. 'Each day that goes by, it's another life, another injury, another family,' said Cleveland, who sustained a broken leg and skull fracture in the September 1999 accident and still relies on crutches to get around.

The recall, announced by Ford and Firestone on Aug. 9, was limited to all ATX and ATX II tires in size P235/75R15 produced in North America and all Wilderness AT tires in size P235/75R15 made at Firestone's Decatur, Ill., plant; the '15' at the end of the code number refers to the tires' size in inches.

Within days after the recall was announced, plaintiffs' lawyers and safety advocates were howling it was insufficient in scope.

Safety advocates note that the 16-inch tires involved in NHTSA's investigation appear to have been manufactured at a variety of Firestone plants, not just at the Decatur facility identified by both Firestone and Ford as a source of problem tires. In the case of the Clevelands, for instance, the tires on their Ford Expedition were manufactured at a Firestone plant in Joliette, Quebec.

In some ways, says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, 16-inch tires that fail can be more problematic than 15-inch tires. 'The bigger tires raise the vehicle's center of gravity, making it more rollover prone,' Ditlow said.

Still, both Ford and Firestone insist that there is no evidence to suggest a widespread problem with unrecalled 16-inch tires.

'Our actions are based on data, based on facts,' said Jon Harmon, communications director for Ford Truck. 'If you put enough millions of tires on the road, some will fail. To our knowledge, the 16-inch Wilderness tires' failure rate is nowhere near that of the 15-inch tires being recalled.'

As for Ford's decision to pull 16-inch tires off sport-utility vehicles in other countries, Harmon said that in other countries 'the vehicles were subjected to environmental and driving conditions way beyond anything they were subjected to in the U.S.'

Harmon said that Firestone, at Ford's request, had conducted a study of Firestone tires on Explorers in the Southwest U.S. and determined there was no evidence of the kind of tread-separation problem seen in other countries. But Harmon added that Ford had recently gone to all its tire suppliers and asked them for reports on their testing, adjustment claims and any other data on all tires supplied for Ford vehicles, including 16-inch Firestone tires.

Ralph Hoar, who runs the Safety Forum, countered: 'All of these gymnastics and statistical contortions by Ford and Firestone, and to some degree the government, to limit the recall to those tires with the highest rate of reported failures is all exactly that. There is not a dime's worth of difference between the 15-inch tires and the 16-inch tires.'

Meanwhile, a group of plaintiffs' attorneys have secured an Oct. 16 court date before U.S. District Court Judge David Herndon in East St. Louis. The judge will consider, among other things, whether to order Firestone to expand its recall to include 16-inch tires. The suit, on behalf of more than 150 individuals with Firestone tires on their vehicles, is against only Firestone.

And the Benfords' atttorney, Kenneth Moll, has filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Ford and Firestone that also seeks to expand the recall to include 16-inch tires.

In some cases, the victims of crashes involving 16-inch tires are still recovering from their injuries.

Harry Benford, an attorney, had bumps and bruises, but his wife, Martha, a nurse, had to undergo abdominal surgery.

Woodie Cleveland, 48, a commercial airline pilot, was on disability for six months with a broken arm and clavicle. Daughter Brittney, 13, also had a broken clavicle and facial lacerations that required plastic surgery. A younger daughter, Ashley, 10, sustained a sprained ankle.

'They recalled the same tires we had [in Saudi Arabia] one month prior to our accident,' Laurie Cleveland said. 'If Firestone would have come to the U.S. and told us about the recall, I think we would have changed our tires.'

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