Firestones cover-up unraveled like its tires

Posted: Monday, August 14, 2000

Millions of Americans are cruising around on Firestone tires that could unexpectedly blow to smithereens, a fact known to the manufacturer but withheld from the public.

The cover-up is unraveling like ratty tread, and now Firestone is offering to replace at least 6.5 million tires, many of them standard rubber on popular Ford Explorers and pickups.

What prompted the company to take such drastic action? Was it the 46 deaths suspected to have been caused by sudden tire failures? The 80 injuries? The 270 incidents reported?

Nope. Its the publicity.

Things were under control at Bridgestone/Firestone until unsettling facts began dribbling out in the media. It was a textbook case of boardroom bozos choosing profits over the safety of their customers.

Whether it was 50 or 500 motorists whod died on defective Firestones, the company obviously wasnt going to make a peep unless the story broke. Meanwhile, astoundingly, it kept selling the three suspect types of tires to unknowing buyers.

One tragedy followed another. Then came the lawsuits, the headlines, the predictable corporate denial followed by the predictable corporate retreat.

Oops! said Bridgestone/Firestone last week. It seems our tires do sometimes unspool. Stop by a dealer and well give you some new ones.

Yet days earlier a company spokesperson confidently had stated: These are safe tires.

Firestone changed its posture not because it uncovered the truth, but because the truth was getting unmanageable.

By voluntarily offering a recall, the company was trying to avoid a repeat of the Firestone 500 fiasco, when the government ordered 14 million radials off the market in 1978. Litigation nearly sank Firestone, which was bought by Bridgestone.

Candid disclosure evidently wasnt one of the lessons learned.

For some time, Bridgestone/Firestone has been quietly settling injury lawsuits involving its Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX II tires. The company typically attaches a secrecy clause, so that victims and their lawyers cant publicly discuss the accidents.

Ford has admitted that last year it began recalling those same tires overseas after several incidents of tread separation. Ultimately, they were pulled from Ford vehicles in the Mideast, Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.

The auto makers explanation of the foreign recall: In those countries, its extremely hot and great distances are traveled at very high speeds.

Such criteria also apply to summertime driving in many rural areas of the United States, but no recall was ordered here. Nor was there any effort to notify American customers of a potentially life-threatening hazard.

Now Ford and Firestone face a public-relations disaster, which is what happens when you sell a product that explodes, even occasionally. People are killed, lawyers surface and soon Mike Wallace is knocking on the CEOs door.

The number of accidents is tiny, considering Firestone has manufactured 47 million AT, ATX and ATX IIs. I went through a set myself with no problems. But once a pattern of failure is detected ... in this case, traced to a factory in Illinois ... the worst thing is to cover it up. The extra sales wont even pay the fax bills by the time all the lawsuits (legitimate and otherwise) get filed.

The recall itself is so chaotic that it could be a factor in future litigation.

Stampeded by worried customers, many retailers have run out of replacement tires. Drivers who cant immediately afford to purchase a different brand are being told it could take up to a year before Firestone can refit their vehicles.

Riding a year on iffy tires is like playing roulette with the lives of your family. Most juries would be properly appalled if somebody waiting for new Firestones was killed or hurt when their old ones went to pieces. So, by its early dodging and denying, the tire maker has left itself in the worst position, with millions of potential plaintiffs driving around on incriminated rubber.

The smart and morally upright move should have happened years ago, when the complaints started piling up . . . stop making the tires, stop selling the tires, stop customers from driving on them.

Too late now. Some people are dead, some are in wheelchairs, and for Firestone its all downhill again.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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