What's Behind the Firestone Steeltex Recall on Ford Excursions?

In February 2004 Firestone found itself in the headlines again when it agreed to recall 497,000 Steeltex tires that were predominantly installed as original equipment on 2000 through early model 2003 Ford Excursions (04T-003). While no specific defect pattern was noted, the tires experienced sidewall failures, tread separations, blowouts and unexplained loss of pressure and caused at least six crashes involving five deaths. The Steeltex line covers a number of different tire types and sizes, those subject to the recall include only the Radial AT size LT265/75R16, Load Range D manufactured in the Joliette, Quebec plant during March 1999 through December 2002 and installed on Ford Excursions.

The Steeltex recall is unusual on two fronts. NHTSA, Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford all credited the recall to the use of the Early Warning Reporting data that was required by Congress following the Ford / Firestone controversy in 2000. This is the first recall to result from the use of the EWR data and is widely being touted as a successful test of the system even by agency critics. According to NHTSA personnel and published reports, the agency examined the EWR data it received from Ford and Firestone and determined that the AT version of the Steeltex in a load range D fitted on Excursions, Ford's largest SUV, showed a failure rate that raised "concern." The agency's initial evaluation of the EWR led to direct communications with Ford and Firestone and a suggestion a recall was in order. In what appears to have been successful negotiations Firestone agreed to recall the allegedly defective tires. However, the nature of the negotiations, the lack of a formal investigation, and EWR data that is still not (and may never be) available for public scrutiny leads to a healthy dose of skepticism by some NHTSA-watchers. If the Steeltex recall represents a success, the data and rationale should be made available for review. Keeping the data and analysis secret, information that is normally included in defect investigations, makes the process a closed one. Public access to this information is rendered more important because there are no specific guidelines for recalls and there are often conflicting precedents.

A review of the Steeltex recall also reveals what appears be a Ford problem that under NHTSA statute foists the entire burden on Firestone. Tires, even those that are specified by a vehicle manufacturer for OE application, unlike other component parts, are the sole responsibility of the tire manufacturer. Thus the recall burden fell on Firestone, despite what appears to be tires that were specified with too low a margin of safety. The recalled tires are being replaced with a higher load range tire (Load Range E)--the same tire used on the Ford F250/350, which shares its platform with the Excursion. The lack of a specific failure pattern, a higher failure rate on a size used almost exclusively on Ford Excursions, and statements from Firestone that many of the failures occurred due to overloading all suggest Ford's specification of an inadequate load range. Tire experts familiar with the situation concur that this is likely. The use of a lower load range left the Excursion with a margin of safety that was too low, harkening back to Ford's decisions for the Wilderness and ATX on the Explorer.

The Steeltex tire line has been under scrutiny following the ATX / Wilderness investigation by NHTSA and lawyers. While there is an inherent discomfort to stand behind the safety of any Firestone tire, particularly those made during the 1990s when the company instituted major cost cutting programs, the claims data reviewed by NHTSA did not raise to the level at which an investigation or recall appeared warranted.

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