The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Corp. to participate in an investigation into more than 21 accidents involving SUVs and pickups equipped with the Firestone brand tires, many of them Ford Explorers.
Firestone’s ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires have been experiencing tread separation, especially at high speeds in warm climates, according to NHTSA.
Nearly 200 complaints have been filed about the tires and 21 to 30 fatalities have been blamed on the failures.
The problems associated with the separation are two-fold: The tire ruptures, which results in a loss of vehicle control, or the tread separates and the tire remains inflated, but the tread wraps around the axle, which also results in a loss of control of the vehicle. Most often the failures occur with vehicles traveling between 55 and 75 mph, but there have been reports of problems at speeds as low as 20 mph, according to NHTSA records.
According to a former Bridgestone supervisor, the combination of the tire design and the handling characteristics of the Ford Explorer make it more susceptible to problems. Repeated flexing of the tire allowed the sharp edges of the metal belt to create a separation of the tread, which would not be noticed until it was peeled off at high speed by centrifugal force, said Harry Baumgardner, who is now president of Tire Consultants Inc. in Alpharetta, GA. The tire needs a nylon strip around the edge to protect the belt edge, he added.
Ford has been using Firestone’s ATX and Wilderness tires on its hot-selling Ford Explorer and Explorer Sport Trac vehicles, as well as its Ranger compact pickup truck. While other automakers also use the tires on their vehicles, 21 of the fatalities have been linked to Ford Explorers.
General Motors, Subaru, Nissan and Toyota also use the tires on their vehicles. Public Citizen, a Washington D.C. watchdog group, alleges that 30 deaths have occurred in Ford vehicles using the Firestone tires. Ford held a press conference Aug. 4 to address the issue.
"We’re clearly very, very concerned about the situation," said Ford president and CEO Jac Nasser. "We’re working extremely closely with the U.S. government and Firestone because we want to get to the bottom of this as quickly as we can."
Sears halts sales
Adding fuel to the fire was the announcement by Sears that is would suspend sales of the ATX and Wilderness lineup of tires until NHTSA completed its review of the tires.
After staunchly defending the performance of the tires initially, Firestone representatives were backpedaling Aug. 4, issuing statements about the safety of its products. The company is encouraging vehicle owners with the tires to go to their nearest Firestone dealer to have the tires inspected. It has established a toll-free phone number to assist vehicle owners in finding the nearest dealer. The number is 800-465-1904.
"Bridgestone/Firestone is working very closely with our customers, ranging from individual car owners to retailers, to address their concerns about the tires currently being evaluated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s fact-finding process," said Christine Karbowiak, vice president of public affairs in a released statement.
However, the move by Sears to suspend sales really forced the tire maker to take a hard look at how it would handle the issue. Additionally, it tap-danced around its displeasure with the action taken by the retailer.
"Sears is a longstanding and valued customer of Bridgestone/Firestone," Karbowiak said. "While they have informed us of their plan to stop selling the ATX and Wilderness lines until more information is available, Sears also assured us that they value our longstanding relationship and have great confidence in the brands."
Ford has been aware of the problem for some time and the company has 3.5 million vehicles on the road with the tires. It voluntarily replaced the tires on vehicles in several warm-weather countries, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia, after problems surfaced. No clear policy was established for the United States prior to the investigation by NHTSA.