Congress Stays on Ford, Firestone

A new proposed law, a new revelation about vehicle testing and a new tire pressure were the net results of the continuing investigation into the Ford/Firestone tire fiasco.

Senate and House subcommittees approved the wording to two new laws that give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) broader powers to order investigations and recalls. Additionally, the new law raised the fine for knowingly permitting unsafe products to be sold to the public from $925,000 to $15 million.

The law from both committees also requires automakers and tire makers to report any incidents where a pattern of accidents occurs, or if there are three or more lawsuits filed for the same defect.

The two bills differ on one point: The Senate version includes fines and jail time for executives of those companies if they fail to report the problem and if a death occurs as a result of the defect. The Senate bill permits a $50,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison. The House version carries no penalties. However the leaders of the two subcommittees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Billy Tauzin, (R-La.), suggested that the two sides would work out a compromise.

Tauzin said adding criminal penalties to the bill could hamper the ability of NHTSA to gain all-important executive cooperation during investigations: No one will talk to investigators if they're discussions could land them in jail.

"I agree that we can take steps to improve the criminal penalties provision to ensure we are punishing the egregious violations of the law without damaging NHTSA's ability to conduct important defect investigations," McCain said.

However, he was more focused on getting something settled before the Congress ended its current legislative session on Oct. 6. Congress will take a vacation for the elections, and then possibly amend the bill when appropriate.

Ford trucked through tire tests

Tauzin suggested earlier in the hearings that Ford and Firestone might not have even tested the tires at all. Both companies provided documents to the contrary. However, Ford's documents did not include testing done in 1989, when the Explorer debuted, but an affidavit from an engineer affirming the testing had been done.

However, upon further testimony, the engineer said that testing was not done on an actual Explorer, but an F-150 mule designed to exhibit all of the ride and handling characteristics of an Explorer. Ford representatives had a simple explanation for the lack of documentation and for the use of the test mule instead of an actual Explorer.

"We haven't come across the 1989 document in our search but that's not that odd since 11 years have passed and our retention policy is not that long," said Jason Vines, Ford spokesman, adding that no testing on Explorer was not unusual either. "Now it's true we didn't do it on an Explorer because there weren't any in 1989. But we used a mule configured exactly like the Explorer. If the tires had brains, they would have said 'I'm on an Explorer.'"

Pressure about pressure

Late last week, Ford agreed to change its recommended air pressure for the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires to be the same as what Firestone recommends. Firestone recommends the tires be inflated to 30 psi, while Ford had recommended 26 psi.

Firestone officials implied that one of the reasons for the problems with tires was the lower air pressure recommendation caused the tires to run hotter and cause problems.

"We now know that at 26 psi there is a low safety margin for the Explorer compared to some other SUVs," said John Lampe, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone, in testimony to a session with two House subcommittees.

The company said the reason Ford's recommended pressure was lower was because it helped reduce the chance of a vehicle rollover. Ford denied the allegation, saying it recommends the lower pressure because it provides a smoother ride, but nevertheless change its recommendation.

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