Bridgestone Firestone has announced a recall of nearly 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness tires in several southern states.
The tires were issued as standard equipment on a range of sport-utility vehicles and pickups. Although 48 million of the tires have been made since 1990, only about 14.4 million of the tires have been selected for the recall, likely making it one of the largest consumer recalls ever.
Specifically, the recall covers all ATX and ATX II tires of the P235/75R-15 size, and only those Wilderness tires produced at Firestone's Decatur, Illinois, facility. Firestone insists that the vast majority of potentially defective tires will be covered by the recall, and that the Wilderness AT tires produced at other plants have an excellent safety record.
Of the 14.4 million tires selected for the recall, Firestone estimates that only 3.8 million ATX and ATX II tires and 2.7 million Wilderness AT tires are still in service, amounting to 6.5 million tires that the tiremaker needs to replace as soon as possible.
Two weeks ago, reports emerged regarding the tendency of the tires' tread to separate, sometimes leading to blowouts and/or loss of control. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation, considering 280 complaints relating to incidents dating back to 1992, has now attributed 46 deaths and 80 injuries to failure of the tires.
Bridgestone Firestone vice president Gary Crigger said, "Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers. That's why reports of vehicle accidents involving our tires are very disturbing."
It is suspected that Firestone's recall announcement comes on close consultation with Ford, the automaker that has installed the affected Firestone models in many of its light-truck models, including the best-selling Explorer SUV. More than 75 percent of the deaths due to failure of the tires have involved Ford Explorers, and officials estimated that more than 70 percent of the recalled tires were original equipment on Ford vehicles.
Ford admits knowing, pressuring Firestone
So when did Ford know about the issue, and did the company wait too long to insist on a recall? Ford has already replaced the tires at no charge on 46,000 vehicles in other hot-weather countries in South America and the Middle East, although the sheer volume of Explorers on the North American market likely made Ford balk at the possibility of a manufacturer recall.
Comments by Ford officials hint that Firestone attempted to resist a recall of the tires. Martin Inglis, vice president for North American operations at Ford, said Tuesday, "We've had a war room set up and have been working with Firestone for the last ten or eleven days." Unconfirmed reports have suggested that the recall was issued under increased pressure from Ford and the NHTSA. While Inglis would not confirm that Ford was behind the likely recall, it's clear that Ford is concerned with the potential liabilities of the situation: "Your customers are concerned about safety, you have to be concerned," he said.
Firestone plans to replace all tires still on the road, regardless of wear, with new Wilderness AT tires made at plants other than at the Decatur, Ill., facility. In the mean time, Wilderness tires may be checked to see if they qualify for recall by looking at the DOT number on the side of the tire. If it begins with VD, then it was made in Decatur and is covered by the recall. Upon receipt of an invitation letter, customers can bring their vehicles to Firestone tire outlets for free replacements.
Ford dealerships will also help with tire replacement for affected Ford models. Firestone says, though, that it plans to replace the tires over a yearlong period, with the southern states getting first priority. Crigger said that Firestone would if necessary use other manufacturers' tires as replacements, and the company will also reimburse customers for past replacement of the tires.
Ford claimed, in the joint press conference, that engineers have known about a potential hot-weather tread-separation problem with some Firestone tires for some time and have been actively investigating the problem since last summer. At that time, Ford began its investigation in the southwestern states, working closely with Firestone.
Helen Petrauskas, Ford vice president, Environmental and Safety Engineering, said, "From about last summer on, we (Ford) have had a very vigorous investigation underway."
Firestone officials said that they chose only the particular tires for recall because the particular size, P235/75R15, had a much higher number of reported incidents than other sizes, and because the Decatur, Ill., plant was greatly over-represented in those incidents.
"We (at Ford) are satisfied that Firestone has isolated the effective population of tires that should be recalled," said Petrauskas.
Recall will hit company hard, again
For Bridgestone Firestone, the world's second-largest tiremaker when considered with partner Michelin, the recall will likely dig deep into the company's finances. Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Discount Tire have all temporarily stopped selling the tires, and the recall will likely leave a permanent scar on Firestone's reputation. Since reports of the defects surfaced about ten days ago, Bridgestone stock has plunged. Firestone's Crigger said that, although the recall will obviously be a financial concern for the company, it's just something that will have to be dealt with when the numbers are published.
This story is not a new one for Firestone. In 1978, a decade before being purchased by Bridgestone, Firestone Tire & Rubber faced a similar recall of about 14 million tires prone to tread separations. At that time, Firestone was fined for concealing known safety problems.
For questions regarding the tires recalled, owners of Firestone tires may call 800-465-1904. Owners of Ford vehicles with Firestone tires may call 800-660-4719 or e-mail [email protected].