A Special Report: St. Petersbrg Times Deadly Combination: Ford, Firestone and Florida
 
 
Deadly Combination:
Ford, Firestone and Florida
Part One
  • Main story
  • Companies warming to settlements
  • At a glance
  • The players
  • Questions and Answers
  • A Timeline
  • What the companies say
  • Interview with Anita Kumar, the reporter
  • Graphic: How the tires failed
  • Graphic: When it’s too late
  • Graphic: By the numbers
  • Graphic: The human toll

  • Part Two
  • After the rollover
  • Suspect tires still on road
  • Driver side rear tires fail the most
  • About this report

  • Contact Anita Kumar:
  • Via e-mail: Click here
  • By phone: (727) 893-8472

    Further coverage
  • In first trial, Firestone settles lawsuit
  • Battered Firestone counting on local ties
  • Rollover crashes are hard to track
  • Ford leaves 2-door SUV unchanged
  • Recall may leave Firestone bankrupt
  • Government to expand tire recall
  • FHP says Firestone tire a factor in fatal crash
  • Two bay area lawsuits target Ford, Firestone
  • Ford agrees to test replacement tires
  • Ford recall: from bad to worse?
  • Ford's sub tires may fail more
  • Attention shifts from Firestone to Ford Explorer
  • Ford widens recall; companies cut ties
  • Ford recalls Wilderness AT Firestone tires
  • Dealerships brace for Ford tire recall
  • Tire decision not just for Ford owners
  • Voluntary tire recall rolling smoothly
  • Firestone cuts deal on bad tires
  • How the tires failed: An interactive graphic

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    Tire decision not just for Ford owners

    Owners of non-Ford vehicles also face the choice of paying to replace Firestone Wilderness AT tires.

    [Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
    More than 4.5-million Wilderness AT tires, like the ones on this Chevrolet Silverado, were used on GM and Toyota vehicles.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 10, 2001


    The owners of sport utility vehicles not affected by the recent slew of tire recalls have watched for months while Ford and Firestone blamed each other for the rash of deadly accidents across the nation.

    But they can't sit on the sidelines any longer.

    The same model of Wilderness AT tires recalled by Ford and Firestone also is used on other vehicles -- mostly made by Toyota and General Motors -- that remain on the road and may suffer from the flaws that led to tread separations on those that were recalled.

    Now, owners of those vehicles must decide whether to shell out as much as $500 to replace their Wilderness AT tires or risk the kind of crash that the government estimates has caused 174 deaths nationwide.

    "Get them off," advises Sean Kane, a partner at Strategic Safety, a research company that has studied the tire problems. "This thing isn't over."

    More than 4.5-million of the tires are on SUVs and pickup trucks not made by Ford and purchased since 1996. Others have been installed as replacement tires on vehicles produced by a several other manufacturers.

    Many of them are the exact size as those that were recalled. Others are either slightly smaller or larger. Some were even installed on vehicles as replacement tires after Firestone's recall last summer.

    Bridgestone/Firestone officials say the Wilderness AT tires still on the road are safe and have repeatedly refused to expand the recall. Toyota and GM officials say they stand behind the tiremaker and are taking steps to assure customers that the Wilderness AT tires on their vehicles are not dangerous.

    But Ford Motor Co. is so convinced the tires are flawed that the world's second-largest automaker is spending $2.1-billion to replace 13-million Firestone tires on its vehicles.

    Auto safety advocates say owners should pay to replace their Wilderness ATs no matter what vehicle they drive, particularly before they take their families on trips this summer when high temperatures can lead to tire failures.

    A St. Petersburg Times analysis last month found that 41 people have been killed in Florida since 1997 in sport utility vehicles equipped with Firestone tires.

    In the Tampa Bay area, local dealers already have seen owners whose tires are not covered by the recall come in to replace their Wilderness ATs or to make sure they do not get stuck with them on new vehicles they are buying.

    The federal agency responsible for regulating the auto industry is investigating all the Wilderness ATs on the road but has yet to take any action more than a year after its inquiry began. Still, advocates predict the recall will be expanded.

    "I can't imagine a different outcome," said Ralph Hoar, a safety expert who heads Safety Forum outside Washington and works closely with lawyers suing auto companies. "If we begin to see accidents this summer, the sense of urgency will return."

    'Lucky to be alive'

    Sue Atwell was driving home from work on McMullen-Booth Road in Clearwater on June 20, 2000, when her passenger-side rear Wilderness AT tire came apart. Her 1995 Toyota 4Runner shook, but she managed to pull over to the side of the road.

    Just five days later, the driver-side rear tire failed.

    Atwell, 45, was cruising along U.S. 19, returning home after visiting friends in Sarasota. Once again, a Wilderness AT disintegrated. Once again, she managed to pull over.

    But after that second scare, she plopped down $423 on a set of new Dunlop tires.

    "I'm just lucky to be alive," said Atwell, a human resources manager. "I'm totally convinced these tires are faulty."

    Toyota officials in Torrance, Calif., said last week that not one customer has complained about a Firestone tire failure. GM officials in Detroit said the same.

    But thousands of people, including Atwell, have lodged complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many were driving Fords, usually Explorers, but others were in vehicles made by Toyota, GM and other companies.

    Firestone officials would not say how many Wilderness ATs were used as replacement tires on SUVs and trucks. But Toyota and GM officials say the more than 4.5-million Wilderness AT tires used on their vehicles are built to different specifications and undergo more stringent standards than the ones made for Ford.

    Toyota spokeswoman Julie Alfonso said tread patterns, materials and construction of their tires differ from those used on Ford vehicles. GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said his company has worked side-by-side with Firestone for years, closely monitoring the manufacturing.

    "Firestone ATs are similar in name only," Rhadigan said.

    Toyota and GM have communicated frequently with local car dealers during the past several months to assure them that the tires are safe. They have sent them information packages to distribute to customers and posters to hang in showrooms. Firestone recalled 14.4-million tires last year, including Wilderness ATs made in Decatur, Ill. More than 6-million tires have been replaced. Firestone says most remaining tires are not in use. Ford encouraged Firestone to recall even more tires. But the company refused.

    So last month Ford decided to replace 13-million Wilderness ATs on its vehicles as a "precautionary and preventive" measure.

    Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said last week he could not explain why other automakers are not recalling Wilderness AT tires. "What the differences are, we're not sure," he said.

    Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina acknowledges mistakes were made in tread design and tire manufacturing at the Decatur plant but said those problems have been fixed. She also said Ford shares the blame for designing a vehicle with a tendency to roll over.

    None of that has stopped consumer advocates from aggressively lobbying the government and a federal judge to expand the recall to millions of other tires, including all Wilderness ATs.

    Floridians are particularly vulnerable to crashes since speed combined with high temperatures causes the faulty tires to heat up to more than 200 degrees and disintegrate, frequently causing the vehicle to flip.

    "These tires are failing because they are poorly designed," said Mike Eidson, a Coral Gables lawyer heading up a class-action lawsuit against Ford and Firestone in federal court in Indiana. "Their components are not adequate for use on a heavy SUV, driven for extended distances, in hot weather, at high speeds."

    'Confidence is low'

    At dealerships throughout the Tampa Bay area, it's apparent that some SUV and truck owners aren't waiting for another recall.

    Customers from Inverness to St. Petersburg have been calling and stopping by car dealers and independent tire stores to ask whether they should replace their Wilderness ATs even if they are on vehicles not covered by the recall.

    "Unfortunately, confidence is really low right now," said Chris Hatfield, product manager for Tire Kingdom. "If the customer doesn't feel safe then we change the tires."

    Some customers have decided to get rid of Wilderness AT tires even if they aren't recalled. Others are removing any kind of Firestone tires from their vehicle.

    "We advise them that they might not get a refund," said Terry Chapman of Just Tires -- Tire Discounter in Clearwater. "They don't care. We're seeing people who just don't want Firestone tires."

    The same holds true for new vehicles. Toyota and GM dealers say some customers pay extra to get Firestone tires removed before they drive the vehicle home.

    "Every time they purchase a car, they ask about tires," said Leland Fuller, the service manager at Clearwater Toyota. "We try to tell them that they don't need to change them, but they don't want to have this lingering in the back of their mind. I don't blame them."

    Rodger Rhodus was one of those people who replaced the Wilderness ATs on his SUV -- a Dodge Ramcharger -- about the same time of the recall last summer. The Ramcharger does not come with ATs as standard equipment, but had been put on when he bought the used vehicle.

    The tread separated on the passenger side rear tire while he was traveling on Interstate 75 to Ocala on Aug. 6.

    "I have no doubt at all," said Rhodus, 57, of Safety Harbor. "The tires were defective."

    Consumer advocates encourage owners to replace their tires but keep records and receipts -- and the tires if possible -- so they can be reimbursed if the recall is expanded further.

    "The best thing is for all Wilderness ATs to be removed from SUVs but not just replaced -- replaced with superior tires," said lawyer Bruce Kaster of Ocala, an expert in tire litigation.

    Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, whose office is preparing to sue Firestone and Ford for misleading consumers, has warned Floridians to consider whether to keep the Firestone tires that are on their vehicles.

    "The tires are not good," agreed Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit consumer group that has monitored the problem. "It's now up to the consumer to do something."

    - Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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