THE REGULATORS: 'Firestonewalling' Again? Two Decades Later, Echoes of Earlier Testimony

By Cindy Skrzycki
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2000; Page E01

The similarities are striking--and scary.

The recent congressional hearings on the Firestone tire recall could have been held 22 years ago. In May and July of 1978, executives from Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, sat in front of a House subcommittee for four days, defending a first-generation radial tire called the Firestone 500.

Then, as now, the top officers of the company did not admit to a defect in their product, though there were hundreds of complaints about the tire disintegrating on the rim and 41 deaths. Appearing before Rep. John Moss (D-Calif.), they blamed the tires' problems on bad maintenance and underinflation.

Then, as now, members of Congress expressed disbelief and wonderment that the company didn't order a recall sooner. And then, as now, there was testimony about rollovers, improper tire pressure, weak federal tire-testing laws and missed opportunities to head off the problem.

"It's shocking to me they would go through two of these things," said Michael Lemov, who was chief counsel of Moss's Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigation. "There's no corporate memory or moral suasion from the government. There's probably some of the same people around."

"It just astonishes me beyond my wildest imagination," said Lowell Dodge, who was Moss's special counsel in 1978 and has watched portions of the current round of hearings. "I would have thought Firestone would have learned they have to be very careful how they make these tires. They haven't learned from the first time around."

There are differences, too, of course.

In this case, Ford Motor Co. is playing a role at least as prominent as Firestone's. In 1978, the Firestone 500s were on the cars of many manufacturers and questions were not being raised about the safety of the vehicles, as they are about the Explorer.

A former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lawyer, referring to Firestone's near-bankruptcy and tarnished reputation, recalled: "In 1978, the company's defiant approach to stifle the NHTSA investigation led to its downfall."

Firestone went to court to block progress of NHTSA's investigation of the 500 tire. "There was a coverup and there was resistance to giving NHTSA the information" during the Moss hearings, recalled Joan Claybook, who was the safety agency's administrator in 1978 and testified at a Senate hearing last week.

The stonewalling--or "Firestonewalling," as it came to be known around the agency back then--piqued the interest of the late Rep. Moss, a consumer-protection hero.

NHTSA officials said the company is cooperating in this case, though they expressed dismay when the company insisted two weeks ago that it didn't need to recall an additional 1.4 million tires. The agency was forced to issue a consumer advisory.

NHTSA is still investigating whether to extend the current recall beyond the 6.5 million tires Firestone announced last month that it would replace. So far, the tires have been linked to accidents that have caused 88 deaths.

The official transcript of the Moss hearings and the accompanying report resonate with uncanny parallels to the company's current predicament.

The problem then, as now, was blowouts after the tread separated from the inner layer of the tire. Then, Firestone received complaints from its corporate customers, just as it has from Ford today after it installed millions of Firestone tires as original equipment on Ford's flagship Explorer sport-utility vehicle.

There was discussion during the 1978 hearings about the "trip point" of the vehicle, or the point just before it rolls over after a tire failure with the 500s. Questions about the propensity of the Ford Explorer to roll over after a tread separation have come up in the current recall debate.

There were early warnings of the problems with the Firestone 500s, just as a recall in foreign countries raised the level of concern with the current batch of tires. A Firestone 500 dealer who appeared before the subcommittee said he tried "to sound an early warning on the 500 to the responsible Firestone executives in Akron."

Inflation--more specifically, underinflation--of the tires played a starring role at the 1978 hearings. "The threshold of trouble [begins] when you are off more than four pounds," a Firestone engineer testified. "When we get into the range of six or eight pounds, trouble for sure," he said.

Ford and Firestone have disagreed since 1991 about the correct pressure for the Wilderness and ATX tires that have been recalled, and again the issue of a four-pound difference emerges. Ford recommends 26 pounds per square inch; Firestone calls for 30.

Firestone in 1978 characterized the inflation question as a "user problem"--the same rationalization it used for not recalling thousands of tires in foreign countries:

"Any problems associated with this tire are not problems resulting from any deficiency in the design or manufacture of the tire itself, but rather, from the maintenance habits of a large portion of American motorists."

Bridgestone/Firestone material in the latest hearing record echoes those sentiments, though this time it points mainly to drivers in the Middle East.

The tires currently being recalled passed the government's tire-performance tests, which are performed to specifications that are 30 years old. Back in 1978, Firestone bragged that it passed the same tests and "achieved the highest reliability rating of any tire ever manufactured by Firestone on surveillance tests."

At the time, the subcommittee observed that the government tire standard was as defective as the tires, a point that safety advocates are making in this case. It also concluded that the federal standards and recall system did not work properly to identify the problem and "protect the public against the hazards of the Firestone 500 Steel Belted radial."

The company ended up paying a $500,000 civil penalty and, in the end, recalled 14.5 million Firestone 500 radials.

Moss called for amending a NHTSA statute to allow for criminal penalties "for the conscious failure on the part of a corporation to take reasonable steps within its power to avoid death and injury caused by particularly hazardous products, as I believe to be true with Firestone in this instance."

That was never done. Maybe things will be different the second time around.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this column.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company
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