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A Decade After The Firestone Recall, Tire Safety Still Newsworthy

1997 Ford Explorer XL

1997 Ford Explorer XL

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This week is the tenth annual National Tire Safety Week, but chances are good it isn’t marked on your calendar. Chances are also good that almost eleven years after the hype and hysteria over Ford Explorers fitted with Firestone tires, your tires may well be the most widely ignored component on your car or truck. That’s the purpose of National Tire Safety Week, which reminds motorists to play their PART: 

  • Pressure – tire pressure should be checked and set to the automaker’s recommendations on a regular basis
  • Alignment – tires should be checked for uneven wear, indicating a potential alignment problem
  • Rotation – tires should be rotated, per the instructions in your car’s owners manual
  • Tread – tire tread should be inspected for wear on a regular basis, and replaced when tire wear indicators are visible

National Tire Safety Week began in the wake of the Ford Explorer / Firestone tire safety recall of 2000. On August 3, 2000, the NHTSA launched an investigation into delamination of Firestone tires after receiving some 193 complaints, most relating to the Ford Explorer. Ford simultaneously announced a separate investigation into the safety of Firestone tires on Ford vehicles.  On August 9, Firestone announced the recall of some 6.5 million tires, kicking off the second-largest tire recall in U.S. history. The resulting hysteria crashed Firestone’s website almost immediately, and Firestone retailers soon encountered shortages of replacement tires. By August 12th, Ford had authorized their dealers to replace Firestone tires with other brands, citing availability problems with replacement Firestone tires. For both Firestone and Ford, things would get worse long before they got better.

By August 15th, the NHTSA revealed that there had been 62 fatalities in accidents involving the recalled tires. A subsequent government investigation found that both Ford and Firestone had prior knowledge of Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorer models sold in Venezuela, dating back to 1998. By 2001, with both manufacturers mired in lawsuits and pointing blame at each other, the 100-year relationship between Ford and Firestone was officially terminated by John T. Lampe, then CEO of Bridgestone / Firestone, who announced that the company would no longer enter into supply agreements with Ford Motor Company.

Ten years later, it’s still not clear where the bulk of the blame lies. The original Explorer had a relatively narrow track and a high center of gravity, which made the SUV more prone to rollover than a contemporary sedan or station wagon. The Firestone tires in question did suffer from a higher incidence of delamination, especially when underinflated. Rather that point fingers and place blame, it’s important to look at how vehicles have improved in the years since.

Beginning with the 2007 model year, manufacturers began incorporating tire pressure monitoring systems into new vehicles. These TPMS readouts give warning when tire pressures drop below an acceptable threshold, advising drivers of a potentially dangerous situation almost as soon as it occurs. Modern vehicles have improved standards for both rollover protection and occupant safety, and today’s Ford Explorer is lower and wider than earlier counterparts, making it less prone to rollover even in extreme situations. Electronic aids, such as vehicle stability control, also help to ensure that drivers don’t get in over their heads in a sudden avoidance maneuver or tire blowout. 

Celebrate this year’s National Tire Safety Week by taking a look at your own tires. Check your tire pressure (while your tires are cold, of course), look for uneven treadwear and rotate your tires as necessary, because we all learned the hard way what happens when you ignore your tires.

[AAA via PR Newswire, CNN Money]

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Comments (7)
  1. Based on an extensive evaluation by Motorweek TV doing blow-outs at various speeds of the Ford Explorer and tires; they implied, at least by this viewer, that the roll-over situation was caused by human error. This is understandable in that a blow-out would cause a driver to get nervous and over compensate the driving maneuver.

  2. @Jim, the only thing I would add is "driver error, exacerbated by a high center of gravity vehicle." When people started buying SUVs by the boatload in the '90s, very few ever stopped to think that they'd handle differently from a coupe, sedan or wagon. If most drivers weren't proficient with emergency maneuvers in a sedan, switching to a vehicle with twitchier handling and a higher likelihood of rolling over wasn't going to end well.

  3. No, it is not the driver's fault, nor is the error solely with Firestone/Bridgestone. Take it from one CxSI (Crash scene investigator) - the real problem was with Ford, when they tried to make an earlier SUV out of the Ford Ranger pickup. The whole, sort of long, story is here: Read it.I couldn't testify because of conflict...

  4. @Carl, I'll meet you half way - the design of the Explorer contributed to the problem, as did tire delamination. Driver error was also to blame, as you yourself point out in paragraph 10 of your illustrative story.
    Without getting on my soapbox, I'll say this: most Americans are trained how to operate a motor vehicle, not how to drive. Throw in a narrow wheelbase, narrow track and high center of gravity and you have a recipe for disaster when something goes wrong.

  5. Kurt - you and I are not arguing. My point was that Firestone and the driver were not alone in causing the deaths. Ford's foolishness in trying to make a truck ride like a passenger care by running the tire at low pressure did it too. I was deeply involved (in the wrong side) indefending the Corvair lawsuits. The Chevy dummies wanted to make the handling OK by setting tire pressures at 15/26 f/r. A judge chewed them out for that.

  6. Kurt, do you agree that if HGM would allow it, we could trade emails directly to explore this. You write well and I have commented to Marty that you are one contributor that I admire.

  7. @Carl - thanks for the compliment. I've asked Marty to forward you my email, as I've followed the Ford Explorer recall for some years with interest.

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