Agency Missed Early Tire Warnings

Agency Missed Early Tire Warnings Correction In some Sept. 12 editions, a headline in the Business section misstated how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handled some complaints about Firestone tires. The headline should have said, as it did in other editions, that the agency missed the complaints. By Cindy Skrzycki Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday , September 12, 2000 ; Page E01 On Nov. 30, 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a letter from a Ford Explorer owner who said his Firestone tire tread peeled off like an orange. Imagine my shock when the mechanics looked at my tire and told me I was lucky to be alive, the letter said, adding that the mechanics told him that Firestone tires on Explorers are known to lose tread and contribute to or cause Ford Explorers to flip.

This was among as many as 26 consumer complaints about Firestone tires, filed since the early 1990s, that NHTSA overlooked in January, when reviewing whether to open an investigation into reports of Firestone tire problems. NHTSA had missed the consumer complaints because of the way its database is organized: They weren’t filed under Firestone as tire problems; they were filed under Ford as vehicle problems. NHTSA, the federal agency responsible for tracking information about potential auto safety defects, did open an investigation into Firestone tires May 2–after news reports of tire failures that resulted in fatal accidents. And NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said yesterday that the additional complaints would not have prompted the agency to move any sooner. In the past, the agency has opened investigations with far fewer complaints. It looked into problems with Michelin tires in 1994 based on five complaints. The overlooked complaints–detailing incidents of tire blowouts, tread separations and other accidents involving Firestone tires mounted on Ford vehicles–illustrate how difficult it has been for federal investigators to piece together a clear picture of what went wrong with the 6.5 million tires that Firestone recalled last month.

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The letters might have provided earlier clues to the scope and gravity of the problems–which have since been linked to 88 deaths in the United States. In January, a safety-defects specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told his superiors in a memo that he had been monitoring Firestone-tire complaints for more than a year but had counted only seven in 1998 and eight in 1999 involving the type of tires that later would be recalled. But the specialist had missed other complaints dating back several years because when he searched the database he looked for complaints listed under Firestone ATX and Wilderness (two types of the recalled tires). The data indicates a slight trend of failures in Firestone ATX tires, the specialist, Steve Beretzky, wrote in the Jan. 31 memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. But, he continued, I don’t believe it is strong enough to open an initial evaluation.

Beretzky said the number of complaints was small compared with the number of tires manufactured, and even when the agency called consumers in 1999 based on seeing a similar trend, the information gathered did not add up to a case. NHTSA’s Tyson said that even if the agency had taken note of the additional complaints, the number was not sufficient to have prompted it to open an investigation at that time. Opening an investigation is among the agency’s first steps in a process that can lead it to order a recall of unsafe vehicles or auto parts. Called vehicle owner questionnaires, many of these complaints include photographs of the accidents, insurance reports, and copies of letters and bills sent to Ford Motor Co. and Firestone for damage done to Explorers from tire blowouts. For instance, on Sept.

7, 1997, NHTSA received a letter from an angry Texas motorist who said she lost control of her 1992 Explorer when her rear passenger side tire lost its tread: I hit an 18-wheeler and bounced off his truck–twice. I then crossed the median of Highway 288 toward oncoming traffic, she wrote. I have and will continue to tell everyone that these tires are a hazard and should be recalled. Tyson said it’s a quirk of the database that the Ford complaints didn’t pop up when Beretzky was searching for tire data. But even without reviewing the full universe of consumer complaints, Beretzky said in his January memo: It is also possible that the problem is much larger than our data is suggesting.

In arguing against opening an investigatin, Beretzky noted in the January memo that when the agency had a much larger volume of complaints in 1996 on Goodyear Invicta tires, an investigation was opened but no recall was ordered. Beretzky said yesterday that he couldn’t comment on the investigation. NHTSA did note that its complaints increased dramatically after a Houston television station ran a story in February on problems with the tires. On March 6, NHTSA issued an initial evaluation of the Firestone tire problem, two months before it publicly announced its investigation. At that time, the agency said it knew of 25 complaints alleging sudden blowouts or tread separations of Firestone ATX or ATX II tires, resulting in nine crashes and four injuries.

It said all of the complaints were received in 1999 and this year. By May, when the agency opened its public investigation, it had counted 90 complaints. It found that 46 of those complaints were in the NHTSA database before Beretzky wrote the memo. And going even further back, it discovered that 26 of those complaints were logged in prior to July 1998. That’s also the month the agency received an e-mail and documentation from State Farm Insurance Co., documenting 21 cases where the Firestone tires were implicated in accidents with Explorers.

By Cindy Skrzycki Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, December 6, 2000; 12:27 PM The federal government’s safety agency reported today that fatalities linked to problems with Bridgestone-Firestone tires have reached 148, up from 119 two months ago. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said that more than 525 injuries have been reported to the agency, up from more than 500 when the last official tally was released on October 17. Complaints have risen to more than 4,300 from 3,500. NHTSA recalled some 6.5 million tires for alleged tread separation problems on Aug. 9. The majority of the accidents and fatalities occurred on ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires installed on Ford Motor Co.

Explorers here and in several foreign countries. The agency is in the thick of investigating possible problems with the vehicle and the tires and expects to visit both companies at their headquarters in Akron and Detroit next week. Since the August recall, there have been four fatalities. Also, five other fatalities occurred on tires that have not been officially recalled by the company, but are subject to a consumer advisory that was issued by the agency on September 1. Firestone has said it would replace tires i …


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