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Special Event

Reps. Tauzin and Markey Deliver Opening Statements at Congressional Hearing on Firestone Recall

Aired September 6, 2000 - 1:22 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: "Time" magazine senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf is with us this afternoon, helping us cover this story. He contributed to the current issue's story on Bridgestone/Firestone, "Anatomy of a Recall," in the current issue of "Time" magazine.

Michael, it's fascinating that, as you -- you write a car accident involving a 14-year-old girl on October of 1998 has now led to this impressive committee room that we're seeing this afternoon and the congressional testimony by the chairman of these two companies. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of how this evolved?

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, "TIME" SR. CORRESPONDENT: You know, we may not even be here now -- we may not even realize the extent of this problem, if not for this aggressive small-town Texas lawyer by the name of Randy Roberts. He represents the parents of this 14-year-old girl. And they did not want to settle this case financially. Their main goal was to get the tires off the road.

He pressed a judge from another small town to give him a full accounting from Firestone of all the complaints and all the lawsuits filed against Firestone's tires over the years.

Firestone, of course, fought it, claiming there is nothing wrong with the tires, as it often does.

Finally, Roberts won and what he got was huge cache of complaints, more than 1100, 57 lawsuits, much wider than anyone realized, including NHTSA, the federal auto safety regulators. He got in touch with NHTSA, gave them the tip off, and off and running was that federal agency.

WATERS: And here we are in the committee room, the chairman of the subcommittee on Telecommunications Trade and Consumer Protection, Bill Tauzin, is getting to the core of the investigation that's been conducted. And some of the set up for the questions that will be put to the chairman of Firestone and to -- rather Bridgestone/Firestone and the Ford Motor Company this afternoon.

Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) REP. BILLY TAUZIN (R), LOUISIANA: ... State Farm insurance, on his own volition, sent an e-mail to NHTSA describing 21 incidents of failure of these tires, 14 involving Ford Explorers, and urging NHTSA to take action on the problem.

Our investigators found the memo in file at NHTSA. The memo went unanswered. NHTSA apparently did not respond.

In the year 1999, Mr. Boyden, who will later testify at this hearing, apparently also called the agency to update him on 10 more incidents that occurred in 1998, and again, on a second phone call to 35 more incidents occurring in 1999. Again, the agency apparently did not respond nor take action pursuant to that information.

We've learned that in 1999 some very serious things were happening overseas regarding these tires or similar tires produced by Firestone and available on Ford Explorers. We learned, for example, in 1998, Ford dealers in Saudi Arabia began complaining to Firestone about these tires and their failure rates in Saudi Arabia.

We have, for example, letters we're going to put in the record, one dated in '98 in which the gentleman from the Ford dealership is writing to the Firestone dealership and I quote, "As you know, this concern goes back to mid-1997 when we first notified you of the concern. I have to state that I believe this situation to be of a safety concern which could endanger both the vehicle and, more importantly, the user of the vehicle. So I'm asking what is going on. Do we have to have a fatality before any action is taken on this subject?" 1998.

1999, Ford and Firestone apparently in a dispute over who should be responsible for replacing the tires in Saudi Arabia, Ford assuming that responsibility, and we find a memo produced about discussions with Firestone legal authorities indicating, in effect, in that memo and I quote, "Firestone legal has some major reservations about the plan to notify consumers and offer them an option. First, they feel that the U.S. DOT," Department of Transportation, "will have to be notified of the program since the same product is sold in the United States," evidence that there was a concern in 1999 that officials at DOT not know of the problem that was occurring in Saudi Arabia, which resulted in Ford replacing, I understand, 40,000 or more of these Firestone tires on their vehicles in Saudi Arabia.

We've also learned -- and we hope to learn a lot more today about the testing procedures on these tires. As you have all found from the press on the subject, Ford has recommended that these tires be inflated at 26 pounds per square inch on an Explorer and there is great concern as to whether or not Firestone ever tested, under speed conditions, those tires on a Ford Explorer at 26 pounds per square inch. So far, Firestone has not provided documents to our investigators indicating whether those tests occurred.

Ford apparently has produced some documents indicating that their specs might have required that testing. We have yet to find out whether Firestone -- and we'll hear testimony today as to whether Ford ever conducted testing at that inflation rate on these tires. So we will learn a great deal today about who knew what and when. We'll learn a great deal more about why this recall is going so slowly and why people are still dying on the highways and why it took nearly 90 fatalities for us to get serious enough to expedite and get this recall going. And we have to ask ourselves why we're in this mess and what we can do as a panel representing the Congress here to make sure this never happens again and that this recall be expedited so that fewer of our citizens lose their lives or be seriously injured on the highway.

I want to tell you quickly what this hearing is not designed to do. It is not a criminal investigation. It is not a legal case trying to fix liability or blame. We are here today to hear from the principals about their versions of the facts and to determine to the best of our ability what went wrong, what was known by what parties when, what was done or what was not done, and what could have been done to avert this national tragedy. And from it, I hope that our committees will produce a body of evidence from which we and NHTSA and our federal authorities, and hopefully the companies, can make the right decisions, not only to get this awful tragedy behind us as quickly as possible, but to make policy that will ensure that it never happens again.

The chair yields back the balance of his time and is pleased now to welcome and recognize the ranking minority member from the great state of Massachusetts, my friend, Mr. Markey, for an opening statement.

REP. EDWARD J. MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, very much.

And thank you for holding this extremely timely hearing.

The hearing has been prompted by the recent announcement by Firestone that it would recall some 6.5 million tires used primarily on the Ford Explorer. Firestone was given the contract to produce specially designed tires for the Ford Explorer and began production in 1990 of such tires. Because of the boom in sales of the Ford Explorer over the ensuing years, Firestone produced large quantities of these tires, particularly the 15-inch tire.

A subsequent rise in claims against Firestone, specifically instances where the tread and one steel belt separated from the other steel belt of the tire, began a number of years ago, especially when such data indicated to Firestone, to Ford and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration that a public safety issue was at hand and that something needed to be done, is just one part of what this hearing will analyze.

There are, however, still many questions that need to be answered today. For example, the relationship between the tires themselves and the automobile for which they were designed, a sport utility vehicle, needs to be explored. NHTSA and consumer safety groups have already noted the proclivity of SUVs to roll over in certain situations, and NHTSA has proposed a rollover test and reporting requirement. Have SUVs put unanticipated stress upon those tires? In other words, if you could hypothetically take those tires off a Ford Explorer and instead put them onto a Ford Escort, would there still be a problem?

Now that the recall is under way, will consumers be able to replace their tires quickly? Knowing that it costs somewhere between $300 and $400 to buy new tires, a fairly significant sum for people on fixed incomes, will Firestone rapidly reimburse such consumers? Are there sufficient replacement tires in all markets to go around? Will there be prolonged delays and how can any such delays be dealt with?

WATERS: Opening statements by members of two House subcommittees in the Sam Rayburn Office Building committee hearing room. The chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Consumer Protection asking three questions: Why are people still dying? Why is the recall going so slowly? Why did so many people have to die before we found out about this?

Some of the questions asked today. We'll attempt to get to the bottom of all that. Testimony us expected to get under way shortly. We will be covering it all live.

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