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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A federal agency is investigating 21 reported traffic deaths allegedly caused when Firestone tires - often used on new pickups and sport utility vehicles - peeled off their casings.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday the deaths are among 193 complaints it has received about the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires.
The agency began investigating in May. This week, two Florida families sued Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone, alleging tire treads on their Ford Explorers separated and caused fatal accidents.
Similar suits concerning the tires have been filed since 1996.
Attorney Gary Pajcic, who represents the Florida families, said the tire problem becomes deadly on the Explorer because its high center of gravity makes it more difficult to control when the tread separates.
Firestone's parent company, Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone, said in a statement Tuesday that it has full confidence in its tires. Almost 48 million have been made.
Calls to the company's headquarters were not returned Wednesday.
The Public Citizen watchdog group in Washington and attorneys involved in litigation with Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford allege 30 deaths nationwide have been caused by tire separation.
The federal investigation is in its preliminary stages, with letters sent to Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford. Both companies have asked for additional time to respond.
The tires have been original equipment on Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan and Subaru vehicles for several years, but most accidents reported to the traffic safety agency have involved the Ford Explorer.
Agency spokesman Tim Hurd said Wednesday the agency does not yet know why so many of the incidents have been on Explorers.
He said 28 reports of tread separation noted that the tire remained inflated, sometimes even after a crash. He said that in two cases, the tire tread wrapped around the rear axle and locked up the wheels.
Tread failure was reported at a speed of 20 mph, but 55 to 75 mph was typical. Some tires that failed had less than 2,000 miles of use, the agency's records show.
Ford has replaced Firestone tires for free on vehicles sold in Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia after tires failed in those countries. Though not accepting blame, Ford said it swapped tires ``as a customer satisfaction issue.'' It has not made a decision on replacing tires for U.S. customers.
Bridgestone/Firestone's list of vehicles with Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires as factory equipment includes Ford F-150 and Ranger pickups, Expedition and Explorer; Chevrolet and GMC full-size pickups; Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac full-size SUVs; Nissan Frontier pickup and Pathfinder SUV; Toyota Tacoma pickup and 4Runner SUV; and Subaru Outback.