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Ford recalls Wilderness AT Firestone tires

The automaker will spend $2.1-billion to replace tires it says are flawed on Explorers and other models.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


The automaker will spend $2.1-billion to replace tires it says are flawed on Explorers and other models.

Ford Motor Co. will spend $2.1-billion to replace 13-million Firestone tires on its most popular sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks that the company contends suffer from the same flaws as tires that led to deadly accidents and were recalled last year.

The world's second-largest automaker described the move to replace the remaining Wilderness AT tires as "precautionary and preventive."

The unofficial recall would far surpass last year's recall by Bridgestone/Firestone of 14.4-million tires. Only 6.5-million of those were actually on vehicles being used.

"We feel it's our responsibility to act immediately," Jacques Nasser, Ford's chief executive officer, said Tuesday.

The move continues the battle between Ford and Firestone over which company is to blame for the accidents that the government estimates caused 174 deaths nationwide.

"No one cares more about the safety of the people who travel on our tires than we do," Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive officer John Lampe told the Los Angeles Times. "The real issue here is the safety of the Explorer. Ford refused to look at issues surrounding the Explorer in August. Ford failed to do that today.

"We stand by our tires and look forward to the opportunity to show . . . why our tires are safe and that there are significant safety concerns with the Ford Explorer."

Ford's recall program involves all original and replacement tires for the Explorer, Expedition and Mercury Mountaineer sport utility vehicles, Ranger pickup trucks and some of Ford's full-sized F-150 pickups.

Auto safety experts and lawyers across the nation, who urged the federal government and a judge to expand the recall, applauded Ford's move as one that would save lives.

"Ford is doing the right thing. They know these dangerous tires are still out there," said Ralph Patino, a Coral Gables lawyer representing victims in 30 cases. "Firestone continues to hide their head in the sand."

Mike Eidson, a Coral Gables lawyer leading a class-action lawsuit against the two companies, said, "(Ford has) finally faced up to the fact that these tires are defective and dangerous. This does not excuse the Explorer's shortcomings. These tires are especially lethal if combined with the Ford Explorer."

But tire experts, including an independent engineer hired by Firestone earlier this year, say both the recalled and non-recalled tires are dangerous.

"There's really no difference between them," said Alan Milner, a Tucson engineer specializing in tire design.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis found that 11 people have been killed in Florida since 1997 in Ford sport utility vehicles equipped with Firestone tires that were not part of last summer's recall. In all, the Times reported 41 deaths in Florida.

The suspect tires are the same size and design as those that were recalled, but they were manufactured in plants not subject to the recall. Others are the same design but a slightly different size. Some were even installed on vehicles as replacement tires after last summer's voluntary recall.

Nasser told lawmakers in Washington that the company's study found that AT tires not included in the recall failed at a rate of 15 per million tires -- three times the industry rate.

While auto safety experts and lawyers were relieved to learn of Ford's decision, they still question whether it's enough.

That's because Ford's replacement program will be just like the "customer satisfaction" programs the company conducted overseas that don't carry the weight of an official recall and won't affect the AT tires in Firestone and other auto dealerships.

"There is a huge difference," said lawyer Tab Turner of Little Rock, Ark., an expert in vehicle rollover litigation nationwide. "There isn't the same sense of urgency."

They will continue to push for a recall, which may include older tires used on vehicles no longer produced but still on the road.

A federal inquiry into 33-million more Firestone tires is now in its second year, but the government has yet to issue a mandatory recall or tell the public if other tires or vehicles have the same problems.

Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the recall would not effect its investigation.

Without issuing a mandatory recall, the federal government along with Ford urged Firestone to voluntarily replace 14.4-million ATX, ATX II and AT tires last summer. More than 6-million have been replaced.

Some lawyers and consumer advocates say the unofficial recall will not happen in time to prevent tires from failing.

"I still think people are going to be killed this summer," said Frank Strelec, a Sarasota lawyer suing Ford and Firestone. "I am waiting for another onslaught of accidents and deaths."

Details of the tire recall

How the recall of 13-million Firestone Wilderness AT tires announced Tuesday by Ford Motor Co. will affect owners of Ford vehicles:

Ford will contact customers by mail shortly regarding the replacement process. Customers can obtain information at any time by contacting Ford toll-free at 1-866-300-1226, or by e-mail at tireinquiry(at)ford.com.

The program encompasses 15-, 16- and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires on the Explorer and Expedition sport utility vehicles, Ranger pickup trucks and some F-150 pickup trucks. More than 80 percent of the tires being replaced are on the Explorer.

Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers will replace tires at no cost to customers. Ford also will reimburse customers who buy tires from other authorized retailers, with proof of purchase, up to $110 for each 15- and 16-inch tire and $130 for each 17-inch tire.

Tires can be obtained from the more than 3,500 authorized Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers that sell tires, or from other authorized tire retailers.

A list of recommended replacement tires -- none of them made by Firestone -- will be available at authorized dealers and will be posted on Ford's Web site (http://www.ford.com).

Ford will work with customers to prioritize tire replacement based on age, particularly tires more than 3 years old.

Other Firestone tires on Ford vehicles are not part of the program. -- Associated Press

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