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Special Event

NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey Testifies Before House About Firestone Recall

Aired September 6, 2000 - 2:48 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: Testimony in the Firestone hearing up on Capitol Hill is getting under way. The first witness has been sworn in.

Here is Carl Rochelle covering matters up there on the Hill -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, we're finally getting down to the business. That is one of the particular phenomenons of Washington politics, that members of the House committee -- subcommittee always like to make opening statements, and we've been through more than an hour and a half of those.

Now we are getting down to the witnesses. It's Sue Bailey, who is the three-week administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which you will hear referred to as NHTSA. She will be questioned by the members of the committee. There is some sentiment from at least some members of this committee that NHTSA did not do as much as they could when they could. Let's listen.

SUE BAILEY, NHTSA ADMINISTRATOR: ... it amended the law in 1974 to establish the current notification and remedy provisions. In brief: the law provides that if a manufacturer decides that one of its products contains a defect, and that relates to motor vehicle safety, the manufacturer must notify the agency and owners, and provide a remedy at no cost to the owners. When the agency's screening process identifies a possible safety defect, our Office of Defects Investigations takes steps to open an investigation as a preliminary evaluation.

We inform the manufacturer and the public at this time. If our review of the information at end of the preliminary evaluation suggests that further evaluation is warranted, we move the investigation to a second stage, the engineering analysis. And we are in that stage today.

At this point, we conduct a more detailed analysis, including appropriate inspections, tests, surveys and additional information from the manufacturer. After the E.A. phase of the investigation, additional steps may ultimately lead the administrator to decide that a defect exists and to order the manufacturer to a recall. If necessary, the agency will then go to court to enforce that order. Our investigation of Firestone has reached the E.A stage, the engineering analysis stage. Firestone originally began producing the tires under investigation in 1991. By the end of '99, approximately 47 million had been produced. By that time, NHTSA had received 46 reports -- but they were scattered over nine years -- about incidents involving these tires.

The tires were on a variety of vehicles: primarily, though, on Ford Explorers. In view of the large numbers of tires that had been produced, and the variety of possible causes of tire failure, and the fact that all types of tires can fail and due in use, the reports we received did not warrant opening a defect investigation at that time. Furthermore, the informal submission by State Farm in 1998 of 21 claims also over were over a period of several years, almost eight years.

And that did not warrant at that time initiating an investigation. The situation changed rapidly following the airing of a news story by KHOU in Houston. That was on February the 7th, 2000. And that dramatized the question of the tire safety. In addition to highlighting two fatalities, the story alluded a number of other crashes and fatalities. Upon learning of the KHOU story, we contacted the station to obtain more details.

They have not given us the information we requested. But the growing publicity generated other reports to us, including several provided by other media outlets and by other plaintiffs' attorneys as well. Over the last few weeks, we were able to verify many of these reports. We opened a preliminary examination on May 2. At that time, the agency was aware of 90 complaints. They had nearly doubled in that time, including a report of 33 crashes and four fatalities.

Information continued to accumulate rapidly as a result of the investigation and attendant publicity. By August, we had 193 complaints alleging tread separations on these tires, with 21 reports fatalities. In meeting on August the 4th, we suggested that Firestone recall the tires. On August the 9th, Firestone announced it would recall 14.4 million tires.

As of August 31, we have had 1400 complaints with reports of 88 fatalities and 250 injuries. NHTSA is continuing its investigation to determine whether additional tires need to be recalled. If we discover information that indicates a problem in any other tire, we will move promptly to urge Firestone to expand the recall. We are closely monitoring the recall to insure that Ford and Firestone promptly replace all the defective tires.

Our review of the data from Firestone has already disclosed that other tire models and sizes of the tires under investigation have rates of tread separation as high or higher than the tires that Firestone is recalling. Therefore, on August 30, I recommend to Firestone that it expand its recall to include those tires. When Firestone declined to expand the recall, we felt it necessary to issue a consumer advisory on September 1 to advise owners of these tires so that they could take actions to assure their safety. We now know that in September, 1999, Ford asked Firestone to replace Wilderness tires mounted on Ford Explorers that had been sold in the states around the Arabian Gulf. Similar actions were taken in other countries as well. Ford would have been required to notify NHTSA in such an action if it had occurred in the United States. But our regulations do not apply to actions taken outside of the United States.

Ford, thus, had no obligation to advise NHTSA when it took these actions. If we find that we need additional legislative authority to require manufacturers to provide, in the future, such information, we will seek to obtain it. A number of claims and several lawsuits have been filed against Ford and Firestone before we became aware of any trend that indicated a potential defect. Our current regulations do not require the manufacturers to give us information about claims or litigation.

We are also, therefore, exploring measures that would allow us to track claims and litigation information on a routine basis.

Mr. Chairman, I want to assure you that this investigation is the highest priority in NHTSA. And we will remain focused on the investigation and closely monitor the recall. Thank you for holding this hearing. And I will be glad to answer any questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chair thanks you, Dr. Bailey and recognizes himself and other members in order for five minutes into our ruling.

WATERS: Sue Bailey, who has been in charge of the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration for three weeks now, delivering her opening statement on the state of the investigation so far as NHTSA is concerned into the Firestone tire recall and the possibility that more tires will need to be recalled.

That situation is being closely followed by NHTSA. We will continue throughout the afternoon following these committee hearings -- two subcommittees of the House of Representatives holding these hearings. And expected to testify this afternoon, the chairman of Bridgestone/Firestone and the CEO of Ford.

We will bring that all to you live.

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