Topic:
CONSUMER PROTECTION;
Location:
CONSUMER PROTECTION; TIRES;
Scope:
Background;

OLR Research Report


November 21, 2000

 

2000-R-1086

FIRESTONE TIRE RECALL

 

By: Paul Frisman, Research Analyst

You asked for information about the Firestone tire recall. Specifically, you asked if tires were recalled in Europe that were not recalled in the U.S. and, if so, why. You also asked for general information on the recall.

SUMMARY

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the U.S. House Commerce Committee, each of which is investigating the Firestone tire recall, is aware of any recalls of Firestone tires sold in Europe.

Representatives of both offices report recalls in the Middle East, Asia and South America. Some of the recalls involve 16-inch tires, which have not been recalled in the U.S.

Firestone announced a U.S. recall of approximately 6.5 million 15-inch tires on Aug. 9, 2000 following claims that accidents occurred when the rubber tread on some of its Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires separated from the underlying steel belt at high speed and in hot climates. As of Nov. 6, Firestone had successfully recalled 75% of those tires. In addition, Firestone has agreed to reimburse consumers who purchased other of its tires that NHTSA has deemed questionable.

We have attached a list of the tires included in Firestone's Aug. 9 recall, as well as those listed in NHTSA's Sept. 1 advisory.

EUROPEAN RECALL

Richard Boyd, chief of the vehicle control division of NHTSA's office of defects investigation, says he is not aware of any Firestone recall in Europe.

Boyd, whose office is investigating the Firestone tire problem, said reports of defective tires overseas have come from the Middle East, Asia, and South America. Specifically, those reports have come from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf, Malaysia, Thailand Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

Boyd said the Ford Motor Co., which mounted Firestone tires on many of its vehicles, recalled the tires in many of those countries in 1999. He said Firestone initiated the recall in Venezuela.

Boyd said that the overseas recall included some 16-inch tires that have not been recalled in the U.S.

Boyd said his office is still studying whether 16-inch tires should also be recalled in the U.S. He said his office has not yet seen the same rate of failure for 16-inch tires here as there has been overseas.

Similarly, Jan Faiks, legal counsel with the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, said that office saw no evidence that Firestone recalled any tires in Europe when it looked into the matter this year.

BACKGROUND OF THE FIRESTONE TIRE RECALL

On Aug. 9, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. announced the recall of its Radial ATX and Radial ATX II tires in size P235/75R15 produced in North America (including Mexico), and its Wilderness AT tires in size P235/75R15 produced at its plant in Decatur, Ill.

The recall affected tires installed as original equipment and replacement tires. Many of the affected tires were included as original equipment on Ford Explorers, Ford Ranger light trucks, Ford F-150 light trucks, Mercury Mountaineers, Mazda Navajos and Mazda B series light trucks, as well as on various other sport utility vehicles.

The company estimated that it produced 14.4 million such tires, of which about 6.5 million were still in use at the time of recall. On Nov. 6, Firestone announced it had recalled about 4.8 million of the tires, or about 75% of them.

The recall took place after a newspaper reported on a rash of tire-related fatal accidents and a federal agency began looking into complaints that some radial tires were unsafe.

In late April the Chicago Sun-Times reported that at least 43 people had died since 1990 because the rubber tread on radial tires had separated from the steel belts underneath. The newspaper said rising speed limits were putting more stress on tires, and the increasing popularity of sport utility vehicles made it more likely that a tire failure would result in a rollover, causing death or serious injury. The Sun-Times series can be found on the web at http://www.suntimes.com/tires/#stories.

In May, NHTSA, a division of the federal Department of Transportation, launched its own probe into approximately 47 million tires manufactured by Firestone. That investigation is continuing. On Sept. 1, three weeks after Firestone announced its recall, NHTSA advised consumers of its findings that the rate of tread separation for Firestone tires that were not recalled exceeded that of the recalled tires, sometimes by a large margin. NHTSA estimated that Firestone produced about 1.4 million of the unrecalled, questionable tires, although far fewer remain on the road. Most of these unrecalled tires were sold as replacement tires, and were not installed as original equipment on new cars.

Although NHTSA asked Firestone to expand its recall to include these tires, the company declined to do so. (Firestone has since announced that owners of these tires can get free inspections at company-owned stores and authorized retailers, that the company would replace any of the tires covered by NHTSA's Sept. 1 advisory, and that the company would reimburse consumers up to $140 per tire for replacement tires purchased from a competitor.)

As of Oct. 24, NHTSA said it was aware of 119 reported deaths related to the failure of Firestone tires.

Suspected Causes of Tire Failure

Investigators have noted a correlation between heat and tire failure. Overseas failures occurred in countries with hot climates, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Coast countries. In the U.S., more than 80% of the failures have occurred in the warm weather states of Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas.

Consumer Reports Online has reported that nearly half the complaints of tread separation occurred at speeds of more than 50 mph; most at speeds of about 70 mph.

Firestone also has said under-inflating the tires has contributed to the problem. Ford is recommending that owners of its Explorers, Mountaineers and Navajos follow Firestone's tire pressure recommendations, and maintain their tires at 30 pounds per square inch (psi), instead of the 26 psi Ford originally recommended for those vehicles.

Firestone and Ford have also pointed fingers at each other during the course of the investigations.

Firestone has said the Ford Explorer, on which many of its tires were mounted, would have a rollover problem regardless of the tires installed. Ford CEO Jac Nasser replied, in a statement before Congress, that the problem was “clearly a tire issue and not a vehicle issue.”

In early November President Clinton signed a bill requiring car companies and tire companies to report to American regulators when they recall products overseas for safety reasons. The New York Times reported that Clinton said the bill would remedy “some of the key shortcomings in identifying the recent Firestone tire problem.”

Driving Precautions and Identifying Recalled Tires

NHTSA has advised consumers who are still using the recalled tires to make sure they are properly inflated, and to avoid driving at high rates of speed, particularly in hot weather.

To determine if a tire has been recalled, or is on NHTSA's Sept. 1 list, consumers must check the “DOT number” on the side of the tire.

On Firestone tires the DOT number is located under the “F” in Firestone. A 10-character designation follows the letters “DOT.” The first two letters after DOT indicate where the tire was made. Tires with DOT numbers that begin with the letters VD were made in the Decatur plant. Other tires included in the recall or the NHTSA advisory have the plant code HY or W2.

Further information on the recall can be found at the Bridgestone/Firestone web site, at http://www.firestone.com/ , the NHTSA web site at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/, and the Ford site, http://www.ford.com. Documents relating to the recall also can be found in the “Hot Topics” section of the House Commerce Committee web site, at http://com-notes.house.gov/cchear/hearings106.nsf/main.

PF:ro