Firestone and NHTSA Launch Consumer Alert for Recalled Wilderness Tires; SRS Had Urged NHTSA to Investigate

Nashville, Tenn. – Bridgestone-Firestone has announced that it will be notifying SUV owners, Firestone company stores and authorized dealers to look for and replace any Radial ATX and Wilderness ATs that were captured in the 2000 and 2001 recalls. The tire maker gave no reason for the consumer notification program, launched on July 21. But, it comes one month after Safety Research & Strategies publicly requested that NHTSA investigate why many recalled spares were left behind during the recalls. SRS pointed the agency to a spate of catastrophic rollover crashes attributed to tread separations in recalled spare tires and evidence that potentially hundreds of thousands of these tires were missed or overlooked during the recalls. NHTSA also issued a “Consumer Advisory” on the notification program that urged consumers to have their tires checked, particularly spares.

Firestone said that it would send letters to registered owners of Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers and Mazda Navajos urging them to check their tires – including the spare – to determine if they still using tires recalled in 2000 and 2001. Firestone says it will replace all Radial ATX and ATX II P235/75R15 tires and certain Wilderness AT P 235/75R15 and P255/70R16 tires.

“We’re pleased that Firestone has acknowledged the problem of uncaptured Wilderness AT and Firestone ATX recalled spares. Notifying registered owners and Firestone stores and authorized dealers is an important first step. But there are many other places – independent repair shops, for example – where these tires are unknowingly put on cars,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies. “We urge Firestone to take a more comprehensive approach and reach out to repair and service organizations to ensure that their technicians know to look for these tires.”

In June, SRS, along with the families of crash victims called upon the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate and to work with Firestone and Ford to initiate a renewed consumer notification program, after finding five documented tread separation cases in the last two years in which a defective recalled tire caused a serious accident resulting in two fatalities and three victims coping with permanent injuries.

SRS based its call for action on independent research it conducted showing that defective Firestone ATXs and Wilderness ATs spare tires remain in circulation for a variety of reasons. Spare tires were often forgotten or purposely overlooked in the initial drive to replace the four in-service tires. In subsequent years, the defective spares have been passed along in used-vehicle sales and put into service. There was also confusion among vehicle owners and dealers about whether the spares were covered under the recalls. (Full-sized spares marked Temporary were excluded-even though they were identical to the ATX models recalled.) In other cases, consumers assumed that the spares were changed and its location under the vehicle made it impossible for the consumer to check, without removing it. Some consumers were told they would have to wait up to a year for a spare replacement.

Following SRS’ request, NHTSA initiated a small-scale survey in the Washington, DC metro area and of the 50 Explorers examined, 10 percent still had recalled spare tires in the spare well.

NHTSA’s Consumer Advisory notes that the “vehicles most likely to still have the recalled tires are those that are known to have had four tires replaced in the 2000 and 2001 campaigns but may still have the original spare.” The agency also recommended service managers and technicians inspect vehicles, especially on 2001 and older SUVs.

The ATXs and Wilderness tires may appear to be in perfect condition, with deep tread. But, says Kane, they are more deadly today than when they were first recalled, because tires age and degrade over time regardless of whether they have been used.

“The initial wave of rollovers with tread separations showed that the ATXs lasted about three years before failing,” he says. “Today, these forgotten tires are anywhere from six to 15 years old and they are likely to fail in days, weeks or months, not years.”

Kane says that Firestone’s re-notification program, while a good effort to find all current Explorer, Mountaineer and Navajo owners, underscores a more systemic problem with tire recalls, in general.

“Tire shops don’t have a mechanism in place to determine if recalled tires are on vehicles or not,” he says. “Technicians in your typical tire shop do not go on NHTSA’s website and check if every tire they service has been recalled. It’s very hard for them to get recall information.”

In August 2000, and again in June and October 2001, the Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone conducted massive campaigns to retrieve some 20 million P235/75R15 ATX and 15, 16 and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires after a federal investigation determined that the tires were prone to tread separations that officially claimed more than 270 lives in rollover accidents, mostly involving Ford Explorers.

Although Ford and Firestone claim to have taken virtually all of the recalled tires out of circulation, their reports filed to NHTSA indicated that approximately 12 million of the more than 20 million tires that remained in use were captured by the recalls.

“Even though millions of defective tires were collected, there were potentially hundred of thousands of tires that weren’t-and these campaigns were so huge, the number of uncaptured tires is bigger than the number of tires retrieved in most recalls,” says Kane. “While we don’t know how many spares are out there, the number is potentially significant. Each tire that’s still out there represents another potential human tragedy.”

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, 2006

Previously: SRS Petitions NHTSA to Examine Firestone ATX and Wilderness Tire Recalls and Owner Notification