Firestone and The Facts

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Many years ago, my father, a second-generation journalist, cautioned me, “Never believe what you read in a newspaper,” an admonition certainly strengthened subsequently by my own experiences in and with various media.

So even though the headline in my morning newspaper a few days ago stated flatly: “Regulator Raises Tire Deaths to 174 — 6000 complained of Firestone failures,” I already knew the numbers — literally as well as figuratively — didn’t add up.

The newspaper reported those numbers supplied by the Federal Government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, better known as NHTSA (pronounced NIT-sa) from its register of complaints about Firestone tires.

The story also noted that three of the main players in the Washington-staged drama, Naderite Joan Claybrook, trial lawyer Tab Turner and professional witness Ralph Hoar (this is not a satire), have been active in promoting these box-score numbers, and quoted Hoar in a way that suggests what the self-appointed protectors of our safety seek is recall of even more tires.

Skeptic's playground

From the beginning of the uproar about Firestone tires and Ford Explorers in August, I was skeptical about the specificity of the accusations, based on my own “insider” experiences with recalls as detailed in a Yoostabees column back in September. I remembered, for example, accident reports filed by trained state police accident investigators which mis-identified vehicles involved — an impossible four-door Mustang, for example.

If cops can’t get it right, then it’s unlikely those less well-trained, like the general public, or less objective recorders, like lawyers, can even come close.

So I took the trouble to spend several hours reviewing the NHTSA complaint register several weeks ago, confirming my earlier suspicions. (You can do the same, via, but it’s a HUGE file to download and probably will crash your computer.)

The complaint register has 23 columns of data, where available, for each of the 6000-plus alleged “cases.” It is difficult to read because you need to screen-shift across a wide page (the good stuff, vehicle make and model and summary, is at the far right) and not lose track of which complaint number you’re examining. It also is just overwhelming in its length.

Here I’ll save you some trouble. I sampled the first 300 reports, largely gathered before the trial lawyers began stuffing the ballot box early last August when they got wind Ford and Firestone were about to issue a recall.

Here’s what I found: there are an awful lot of, well, pure gossip reports. Among those first 300, I counted 38 reports for which the vehicle type was “unknown.” In addition there were 34 others which did NOT involve a Ford Explorer or one of its sister models — despite all the publicity directed at Explorers, which normally could be expected to taint the results with over-representation.

In simple arithmetic, that means fully 24 percent — a quarter of the vehicles reported — were either unknown or not the Fords supposedly involved. The other vehicles in the first 300 included Chevy Blazer, “Chevy Buick” (#43), Nissan, Jeep CJ, Isuzu Trooper, Mercedes, Ford Expedition, Mazda, Toyota 4Runner (numerous), Chevy Tahoe, Subaru Outback (many), Toyota Camry, Suburban, Chevy C10, Chrysler LeBaron, Subaru Legacy, Pontiac Firebird, Chevrolet (model unknown), Jeep Cherokee, Ford Taurus, Ford Contour, Mitsubishi Mirage, GMC pickup and Toyota Tacoma.

Many of the complaints were unrelated to accidents or the tire faults supposed to be reported. For example, included in the file is a complaint from a VW Beetle owner, year unknown: “dealer is charging me to replace a fuel injection pump.” That was counted among the 6000 by government and media alike.

Word for word

Here are some more word-for-word complaints included in the sample:

* no accident but “wants tires replaced”
* no accident but “concerned about safety”
* “two years ago we purchased the vehicle and should have been informed about the recall” (crystal ball, anyone?)
* no accident but “pulls to one side”
* “blackwall tires no longer black”
* “while vehicle parked I noticed a cut in the sidewall”
* “I noticed a bump between the felts” (belts?)
* “car parked, spare exploded”
* “some failure of tires caused rollover” (Bronco II accident 11 years earlier)
* “while driving, spare tire came off”

Just glancing through the remaining voluminous reports, I spotted countless other non-Ford vehicles, or impossible combinations, such as “Ford Sienna,” “Ford Silverado,” and “Ford Lincoln.” Then there were the oldies: ‘70 Dodge Charger, ‘75 Buick Skylark, ‘76 Dodge Ram pickup, ‘76 Chevy Monza, ‘77 Chrysler New Yorker, ‘82 Chevy Monte Carlo, ‘84 Olds Delta 88, ‘86 Volvo, ‘87 Honda Accord.

These included more irrelevant complaints, too:
* “driver side tire is wearing unevenly” (‘98 Ram)
* “major problems including brake failure” (‘95 Blazer)
* “one tire has a bubble in the sidewall” (‘96 Volvo)
* “tread separated and came off a brand new vehicle” (‘92 Explorer -- eight years before)
* “when it rained the tires would slide in puddles” (‘97 Cavalier)

If people don’t know what kind of car was involved, or what the safety issue is, it’s pretty much a given that they don’t know which make tires were involved. Even some of the complaints filed by lawyers, which account for a large proportion of the reports — NHTSA noted that one lawyer alone had accounted for more than 1000 complaints — often are lacking identification of tires.

You'd never know any of the above from watching TV or reading the nation's leading dailies.

Witch hunt burns on

This is the quality of information on which a massive witch hunt and burning was held in Washington by our representatives in Congress, accompanied by days of accusatory media reports. It tells me more than I want to know, but often suspected, about those “inside the beltway.”

To be sure, the complaint file includes many tragic accounts of lives lost and terrible injuries. But there are also clues: “female driver braked” (#27, a ‘96 Explorer). Experienced drivers know that slamming on the brakes when you hear a tire tread flapping is about the worst thing you can do, likely to cause loss of control.

And “vehicle rolled, driver ejected” (#55, a ‘91 Chevy Blazer accident in 1996). As countless safety experts have repeatedly pointed out, wearing a safety belt properly can prevent ejections, the major cause of fatalities in rollovers. But not always: “belted daughter killed” (an accident in October ‘98 not reported to NHTSA until February 2000).

I noted some disturbing omissions from the data that NHTSA requested for its complaint register: whether seat belts were in use where there were injuries; information about the driver’s age, gender and experience; whether correct tire inflation had been noted prior to a reported failure, and whether the failed tire had previously been repaired. The entire exercise has been focused on vehicle or tire design, and not other causative issues. Of course, that is precisely what trial lawyers and professional critics want, either to force settlements now or prejudice juries later — with the aim of pocketing huge sums for themselves or their causes.

In addition, it is important to note that almost all of these reports, insofar as I could tell, were unverified. Obviously fatal accidents had been investigated but many of the reports of them were several years old and based on recollections rather than actual records.

I won’t touch in great detail on the findings of technical experts who are now issuing independent reports on possible causes of Firestone tire failures. Basically, they still haven’t been able to point to any single flaw. Part of the problem is that, out of many millions of tires produced and driven tens of thousands of miles each under all kinds of conditions and care, failures have been so few that they are statistically insignificant.

Needless to say, the critics haven’t been very happy with those findings. On the other hand, according to news reports, Ford Motor Company has been settling suits quickly to avoid the bad press of long trials. So the lawyers have been collecting their one-third contingency fees with hardly a fuss.

Even if all the supposed 174 deaths are validly related to Firestone tires — and I think this demonstrates there’s room for doubt of that — they cover ten years or more and thus amount to only 17 or fewer a year out of some 40,000 annual traffic deaths.

Can we fault the government for the sloppy complaint register that has resulted in plainly false or exaggerated reports? Yes and no. NHTSA is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. During the Congressional hearings on tire safety, NHTSA’s administrator tried to explain statistics like those in the paragraph above, but our representatives didn’t want to listen. It was election time and both Republicans and Democrats wanted to find a witch they could torch.

NHTSA either put clearly irrelevant reports into the register for fear of being criticized for leaving anything out, or it doesn’t have the discipline to weed them out. In fairness, back in September NHTSA reviewed the register and eliminated two fatalities which had been included — of a family’s dog and cat. They’ve also tried to avoid duplications in fatality counts, but this is difficult given the paucity or vagueness of information in many reports.

I think my colleagues in the media should bear the brunt of criticism — for not having the Right Stuff to do just what I’ve tried to do: examine the actual complaint register and fairly report on what it contains.

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