Documents point to tire problem two years before recall issued


WASHINGTON, AP

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. collected data from 1997 to 1999 indicating possible safety problems with the same tire models that were recalled last month, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Officials with Ford Motor Co., which uses the tires, previously said the tire maker told them it did not compile such data.

The disclosure came as Congress opened hearings into why it took company officials so long to recall tires that may have been responsible for scores of highway deaths worldwide.

Multiple lawsuits charging that the tires could lose their tread or blow out on the road have been filed over the past 10 years, and Ford started recalling the tires on its popular Explorer SUV and other vehicles in 16 foreign nations beginning in August 1999.

But it wasn’t until four months ago that the federal government began investigating the case and less than a month ago that Bridgestone/Firestone announced a voluntary recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires.

The internal Bridgestone/Firestone documents marked “confidential” show most of the customer reports of tread separation involved tires from the company’s Decatur, Illinois, plant. More than a third of the reports involved the P235/75R15 size tires that now are under recall.

The tire maker announced a recall on Aug. 9 of the P235/75R15-size ATX and ATX II models as well as Wilderness AT tires in the same size. Many of the tires were made at the Decatur plant. The tires are standard equipment on some Ford models sold in the United States, including the Explorer.

The documents are not dated, so it is unclear when the data was compiled. However, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have maintained they had no statistics showing problems with the tires until Ford did an analysis of Bridgestone/Firestone’s claims of property damage or injuries in late July and early August.

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said he was unaware of the internal documents. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of this information,” he said. (Earlier story on page 15)

Bridgestone/Firestone did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The documents show that of the 506 light truck tire claims reported to Bridgestone/Firestone in 1997, 54 percent were for the ATX II tires. In 1998, 59 percent of 854 claims were for that brand and in 1999 51 percent of the 1,105 claims were on ATX II tires.

The documents were made available on the same day that two congressional panels opened hearings.

“This hearing is not just about the topic of safety,” said Sen. Robert Byrd at a morning hearing of the Senate Transportation Approprations Subcommittee. “It’s about the topic of honesty.”