Congress Grills Ford, Firestone

If anything, two 12-hour Congressional hearings Sept. 6 showed that legislators are going to hold everyone and anyone involved in the Firestone tire recall accountable for the 88 deaths and more than 1,400 complaints.

"We are in the midst of a national tragedy," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who conducted the hearing of two House Commerce subcommittees Sept. 6 at which Ford president and CEO Jacques Nasser and Bridgestone CEO Masatoshi Ono testified about their company's respective roles in the mess.

The two corporate leaders took different tacks in their testimonies: Ono fell on the sword taking full blame for the tragedy.

"I come before you to apologize to you, the American people and especially to the families who have lost loved ones in these terrible rollover accidents," Ono said.

Conversely Nasser nearly tripped over his own two feet trying to push Ono on to the sword, aggressively defending his company.

"We know that this is a Firestone tire issue and not a vehicle issue," Nasser said.

Ford "knew nothing"

Nasser told the subcommittee that Ford had no idea the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires were defective until just shortly before the recall was announced.

"Ford did not know there was a defect with the recalled tires until we virtually pried the data from Firestone's hands and analyzed it ourselves," Nasser testified. "It was only then, a few days before the recall, that Ford engineers discovered conclusive evidence that the tires were defective."

Ono, who was contrite, also defended his company said that he believes that tires are safe and that the problems with tread separation stem from improper usage, repairs and maintenance. Ford and Firestone differ on what the inflation levels should be for the tires. Firestone has maintained that the difference in inflation recommendations is the primary cause for the tires heating up and the tread separating.

Plenty of blame to go around

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was not spared the wrath of House subcommittee members who were eager to put public whipping on everyone.
They were critical of the agency's lack of effort in following up on the report that came from a State Farm insurance investigator who first began to notice a problem with the tires. It was this email combined with a report by a Houston television station that shed light on the problem.

"Why didn't the watch dog bark?" asked Rep. Heather Wilson, R-NM. "The public deserves an answer."

Newly appointed NHTSA chief Sue Bailey got a baptism by fire with the hearings as she said that the number of incidents reported by State Farm, 21 during an eight-year span, didn't warrant an investigation.

Inaction = complicity?

Legislators zeroed in on the lack of action by both companies when the tires began to exhibit problems in other countries, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. In both countries, the tires were recalled and replaced. However, neither Ford nor Firestone alerted U.S. authorities about potential problems. Ford and Firestone pointed the finger at one another when it came to why the problems weren't reported.

"We really didn't have any good information on it," Nasser said. However, an internal Ford memo said, "…they feel the U.S. DOT will have to be notified since the same product is sold in the U.S."

However, a Firestone memo suggested the tire maker was worried the foreign recalls would obligate them to inform U.S. authorities that the tires may be defective. Tauzin said the memo suggests the company attempted to conceal the information, a charge denied by a Firestone representative.

"Nothing we learned there led us to believe that there was a defect of any kind with the tire," said Gary Crigger, Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president.

Nasser attempted to put the best possible spin on the issue by saying that Ford will work with tire manufacturers to develop a system that will let consumers know when there may be a problem with tires.

"When we know it, the rest of the world will know it," he said.

He also suggested that the automaker might offer consumers a choice of tires for new vehicles when they are purchased.

"Looking forward, should we offer consumers a choice of tires?" he said. "I think the answer is yes. Maybe that's what a customer-focused company should do."

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