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Karbowiak and Ditlow Give Point-Counterpoint on Firestone Recall

Aired August 9, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, after days of steadily-growing controversy, the rubber met the road today. Bridgestone/Firestone announced it will recall millions of Firestone tires, allegedly linked to 46 deaths and 80 injuries.

The recall covers all Firestone ATX and ATXII tires produced in the United States, and all Wilderness AT tires produced at the company's Decatur, Illinois, plant. The company says more than 14 million of those tires have been produced, and 6 1/2 million still may be on the road. Critics say the tread can separate from the tire at high speeds, causing drivers to lose control of their cars.

Company officials conceded today that the tire may fail under certain circumstances.


GARY CRIGGER, EXEC. VICE PRESIDENT, BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE: Most of the incidents we have reviewed indicate improper maintenance or damage to the tires, which is often caused by under-inflation of tires. Under-inflated operation of any tire generates excessive heat which can lead to tire failure. The vast majority of incidents are in the southern states of Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas. Which suggests there may be a direct correlation between heat and tire performance.


ALLEN: Many of the tires in question were factory-installed equipment on Ford Explorer SUV's.


HELEN PETRAUSKAS, FORD MOTOR COMPANY: We are absolutely committed to doing the right thing to protect our customers and to maintain their trust. An analysis of field data by both companies, and reviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, indicates that tires being recalled today account for the overwhelming majority of tread separation failures recorded on Firestone tires.


ALLEN: Bridgestone/Firestone says that customers who own the recalled tires will get letters notifying them of the recall, and telling them what steps should they take to get replacements.

At least two class-action lawsuits have been filed so far. Lawyers note that in six countries outside the U.S., Ford already has recalled its vehicles with factory-installed AT series tires. They want to know why it took so long for something to happen in America.


GARY MASON, CLASS ACTION ATTORNEY: Not only are we interested in finding out whether or not this product is defective, but why wasn't the product recalled at this time in the United States when its been recalled elsewhere? There's little margin of error when you're talking about people's lives.


ALLEN: During the late 1970's, Firestone was forced to recall millions of steel-belted radial tires. That episode left the company severely weakened, and Firestone was taken over in 1988 by Japan's Bridgestone Corporation.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Christine Karbowiak is the vice president of public affairs for Bridgestone/Firestone. She joins us now from Washington.

Welcome, this must be a difficult time for you. Two days ago Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were insisting the tires were safe. Are both companies now saying that the tires may be unsafe?

CHRISTINE KARBOWIAK, V.P. PUBLIC AFFAIRS, BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE: No, we're not saying that the tires are unsafe. What we are saying is that we are seeing some anomalies in particular tires, specifically the radial ATX, ATXII in a particular size: the p235/75/r15. And I just wanted to clarify on the lead-in, that is really the only tire size that is involved. In addition, the Wilderness AT tire at the same size is also involved.

WATERS: Anomalies, does that mean that they're still safe or is the company still insisting these are safe tires?

KARBOWIAK: Yes, the first thing I'd like to say is that tire tread separations are an extremely rare event. But even within the universe of these extremely rare events, we have identified that these particular tires of this particular size have a higher rate of incident than other tires in those lines. So we are taking action at this point because we believe it's the right thing to do, in light, obviously, of the customer concerns and we want to make sure our customers have confidence in the overall safety of our products.

WATERS: You, of course, are hearing the critics, they're saying not so rare. As far back as six years ago, Ford began replacing these tires, which were failing on their vehicles in several South American countries, and yet no alert to a possible problem here in the United States, why not?

KARBOWIAK: Well, I can't speak for Ford, but what I can tell you is what they have advised us. These actions that were taken in these other countries were related to a different tire. They also advised us that what -- if they had known at the time they took those actions, the information that we have gathered today, they might have done something different.

My understanding of what the concerns were with the tires in those other countries is that they were run severely under-inflated because they needed to run over sand or very difficult roads in high, high speeds in high temperatures. One of the major factors for tread separation, for tire failure is running a vehicle tire in a severely under-inflated state.

WATERS: But, Bridgestone/Firestone did know about these tire failures in South America some time ago, correct?

KARBOWIAK: Yes, we did.

WATERS: And some are offering criticism now, including the fact that it may have been a cover-up by the company. Is that unfair?

KARBOWIAK: I do believe that is unfair. The fact is that these are not the same tires that are involved in this case. And the circumstances surrounding the concerns in these other countries are very, very different than what we are talking about today.

WATERS: All right, Christine Karbowiak, thanks for joining us, vice president of public affairs for Bridgestone/Firestone.

Also joining us from Washington, Clarence Ditlow. He's a long- time consumer advocate for auto safety. He joins us now to talk about this recall.

You're one of the folks calling this a cover up. Would you care to substantiate that kind of a charge?

CLARENCE DITLOW, CENTER FOR AUTO SAFETY: Yes, well, Bridgestone and Firestone have known about the failure of the ATX for at least six years. They have quietly entered into settlements and product liability lawsuits, conditioned on confidentiality and protective orders. They told the government and the public nothing about these lawsuits. And meanwhile, consumers rode at risk with this ATX tire and other versions having tread separations, riding at risk.

It doesn't matter to the consumer who has a tread separation whether it's a small percentage or a high percentage. It's their vehicle and it's the worst type of vehicle to have a tire failure in, a sport utility vehicle which is prone to roll-over.

WATERS: What -- a question that I have is the Ford-Firestone connection here. Now there are several other car companies including, GM, Nissan, Toyota, and Subaru who also put these tires on their SUVs, and they're not reporting these problems. What would be the reason for that?

DITLOW: The specification for the tire in other vehicles may be slightly different. In addition, the Ford Explorer is a very roll- over prone vehicle, so that a tread separation in a Explorer may be more serious than in another sport utility vehicle.

WATERS: So this could be part an SUV problem? or it is partly an SUV problem?

DITLOW: It is clearly partly an SUV problem. And that's why Ford is participating in the recall process, and in fact, it was Ford that instrumented the recall in the other countries.

WATERS: Now the vice president of the company said today the reports of these accidents involving these tires' separations: Arizona, California, Florida, Texas; six years ago, as we've already pointed out, South American countries with high temperatures reporting these tire failures that apparently has a lot to do with it.

DITLOW: High temperatures occur everywhere in the United States. It's nearly 100 degrees today here in Washington. And in fact, vehicles travel across the country. These tires fail at higher rates in southern states, no doubt about it, but they fail in other states and we get complaints from Maine as well as from Florida.

WATERS: So what are consumers -- I mean the consumer alert is so strong now, that any folks with a Firestone tire on their SUV is on the verge of some kind of anxiety, but yet they have to wait for a letter to come to instruct them how to replace these tires. What do they do in the meantime? park their car?

DITLOW: Well, If I had a sport utility vehicle, I would do two things. First of all, I would have the tire inspected by my local Ford dealer to see if there are any signs of impending tread separation in it and then to immediately replace them.

And second, I would caution my driving in the meantime and curtail it as much as possible until I can get recall of the tire. And if, in fact, it looks like it's going to be months for recall, I would go out and buy a new set of tires from another company and seek compensation through the class-action lawsuits.

WATERS: I don't know if this has any bearing at all on what we're reporting today, but you were involved in another Firestone tire recall some many years ago, 1978 is the date I have, nearly 12 million Firestone 500 tires recalled. What about that and what about this?

DITLOW: Well, in fact, the Center for Auto Safety did prompt the recall of the Firestone 500s in the 1970s. The difference between then and now, and the similarities are very striking, first of all, in both instances, Firestone concealed the hazards in the failures of these tires from the public.

But in the 1970s, Firestone fought a major public relations campaign and in fact lost, had to do the recall, lost market share, and the company was substantially financially weakened. They learned from that that stonewalling is not a good defense once the cover-up has been revealed.

And today Firestone is doing what it should have done several years ago with these tires and Ford is participating. But the question for the American public is why did it take so long for the cover-up to be broken? And what do we need to do to strengthen the safety laws in this country to require manufacturers to report defects before deaths occur on the road?

WATERS: Clarence Ditlow, with the Center for Auto Safety, thanks so much.



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