Firestone, Ford under fire
Companies try to pin blame on each other, but others say both are at fault
WASHINGTON (CNNfn) - U.S. lawmakers sharply criticized Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. Wednesday for not acting quickly enough to recall millions of Firestone tires that have been linked to at least 134 deaths in the United States and abroad. But in testimony, the heads of both companies pointed the finger of blame at the other.
In a day of congressional hearings looking into the events leading up to last month's recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires that dragged late into the evening, officials also chided the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for taking too long to respond to complaints that the tires were separating from their treads, even though an insurance researcher notified NHTSA of the problem nearly two years ago.
"We need to know why NHTSA, which has officials who are paid to do nothing else but monitor accidents, have been asleep at the wheel when it had information served up to it on a silver platter by State Farm Insurance Company which would suggest grave problems with Firestone tires," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich, referring to the State Farm researcher, Sam Boyden, who first discovered the link between roadway fatalities and the tread separation problem.
Federal safety officials say up to 88 deaths in the United States may have been caused by tread separation on some versions of the Firestone Wilderness tires, as well as its ATX and ATX II models. Most of the 6.5 million tires involved in an Aug. 9 recall are on Ford Motor Co. light trucks and sport/utility vehicles, such as its best-selling Explorer. Officials in Venezuela are also investigating whether the tires led to 46 deaths there.
On Sept. 1, NHTSA issued an advisory on an additional 1.4 million older model tires after Firestone refused to recall them. Firestone said it didn't find enough evidence to issue a recall.
Harsh words from Congress
"I would like to know how it could take us 10 years, dozens of lives, numerous lawsuits, substantial consumer complaints, tire replacements overseas and repeated expressions of concern by an insurance company before any action was taken to initiate an investigation into the safety of a product being used by millions of American families," Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Transportation subcommittee said. "Simply put - the American people deserve better."
The chief executives of both Japan's Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford defended their companies' handling of the massive recall but they could not explain why the treads on the recalled tires are vulnerable to separation or why it too so long to notify the government about the problems with the tires.
"I come to accept full and personal responsibility on behalf of Bridgestone/Firestone for the events that led to this hearing," Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive Masatoshi Ono said in a statement. "Whenever people are hurt or fatally injured in automobile accidents, it is tragic.
"Unfortunately, I am not able to give you a conclusive cause at this time. However, you have my word that we will continue until we find the cause," Ono said.
But Bob Wyant, Firestone's vice president of quality control, when asked why certain U.S. states were not included in the recall, admitted the company could have handled things better. "We didn't have a plan that was all worked out. We changed things as we went along."
Speaking after Ono, Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser placed the blame squarely on Firestone, saying the company failed to notify Ford executives of consumer reports about problems with the tires.
"Because tires are the only component of a vehicle that are separately warranted, Ford did not know _ I'll repeat that _ Ford did not know there was a defect (in the tire) until we virtually pried the information from Firestone's hands. We then demanded, insisted, that Firestone pull the tires from the road."
"If I have one single regret, it's that we did not ask Firestone the right questions sooner," Nasser said, insisting that Ford "took the initiative" to address the tire problem.
Nasser said Ford Explorers equipped with Goodyear tires on 1995-1997 models did not experience tread separation problems, answering critics who have claimed that the Explorers, with their high center of gravity, are more likely to roll over in a blowout such as one caused by tread separation.
Lawmakers on the offensive
Legislators spent most of the day Wednesday focusing on why the companies and NHTSA did not act faster to warn consumers.
"We've seen claims in the last month that they didn't know until July of this year, and now you're working around the clock to find out what's wrong," said Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican. "That's rubbish. You knew you had a problem a long time ago. You had recalls in 18 countries. This committee's staff has uncovered memos going back to 1997 where you knew you had a problem and you didn't do anything about it."
Sue Bailey, administrator of NHTSA, told a joint House subcommittee hearing the agency had no record of any of the e-mails or phone calls from Boyden, associate research administrator for State Farm Insurance, detailing 21 reports on Firestone tires and Ford Explorers.
"There is no record of those phone calls," Bailey told Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the House Commerce Committee chairman overseeing the hearings.
Boyden is expected to testify that he sent an e-mail to NHTSA on July 22, 1998 and April 25 of this year stating he had noticed 21 reports regarding Firestone ATX tires, and that 14 of those reports were for tires on 1991 Ford Explorers. But he said no one from NHTSA followed up with him.
"I continued to communicate with NHTSA on a great number of issues," Boyden said in prepared remarks, adding that during the summer of 1999 he telephoned NHTSA and discussed the issue with an official. On Dec. 2 of that year, someone from the agency called him back, and he again mentioned the Firestone ATX tire issue.
At the request of NHTSA, Boyden said he sent another e-mail providing 70 reports on Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires on April 25 of this year.
NHTSA's Bailey testified that she had no recollection of receiving the e-mails or phone calls until agency officials tried to reconstruct Boyden's messages last month as the recall crisis first emerged in the U.S.
"More than two years ago, one of our witnesses today from State Farm Insurance Company identified a suspicious and troubling trend in serious accidents involving the now-recalled tire, mostly when mounted on the Ford Explorer," Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va. said in opening statements. "Yet when State Farm on its own initiative took the virtually unprecedented step of bringing these claims to the attention of NHTSA, the federal government's highway safety watch dog, that dog apparently was asleep."
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., said he was concerned that problems with Firestone tires in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela were not immediately reported to U.S. officials, who might then have taken action to protect drivers at home.
"Apparently a conclusion was drawn that there was no 'legal duty' to report this information to U.S. officials," said Wynn. "I wonder whether anyone considered whether there was moral duty to report this information to U.S. officials, and so I'm very concerned [about] what the leaders of these two companies have to say about the subject of where their responsibility [lay] in responding to this particular crisis."
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater did not testify at the House hearing, though he had been scheduled to appear. Bailey testified in his place, but some lawmakers were not appeased.
The House hearing opened with a 10-minute news report from a Houston television station which detailed problems and deaths associated with the tires. The report, aired in February, helped launch extensive media coverage of the Firestone tire problems.
Most of the recalled tires apparently were manufactured at Firestone's factory in Decatur, Ill., leading lawmakers to question the company's quality control procedures there.
"What the hell was going on in that Decatur plant?" Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., thundered during questioning of Firestone executives at the hearing. "What kind of mechanisms did you have in place to observe this? The problem starts at the point of manufacture."
"We inspect the products all the way from the raw materials, from quality control systems, from the product going out the end of the plant," said Firestone's Wyant.
Senator Shelby suggested a sinister motive by Ford and Firestone for not reporting the tire problems to federal authorities.
"Does it concern you that Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, I believe, concealed a lot of this information rather than tell the public?" Shelby asked Bailey, the NHTSA administrator.
"The manufacturer has a responsibility, once they detect a defect to notify us," Bailey responded. "We'll also be looking at the timing of that notification and other aspects of the case that are under investigation now so yes, of course, it's a concern."
Since the recall began last month, the relationship between Ford and Firestone has become strained, with each side blaming the other for not notifying consumers sooner. On Tuesday, a 1999 memo from Ford surfaced, suggesting Bridgestone/Firestone tried to keep defective tire information in Saudi Arabia from the U.S. government.
"There's an interesting document that indicates there were discussions by Ford and Firestone as to how they would handle the Mideast problem," Tauzin said, referring to Ford's replacement of Firestone tires in Saudi Arabia.
"One of the motivations to not recall the tires, but to have Ford assume responsibility, was Firestone's concern that it would trigger action by DOT (the Department of Transportation) here in America," Tauzin said.
Ono and other Bridgestone/Firestone officials told lawmakers they were he was not aware of any memo urging Ford not to notify the U.S. government about its replacement program in Saudi Arabia.
Shares of Ford (F: Research, Estimates) gained 56 cents to $28 Wednesday. Shares of Bridgestone slipped almost five percent in early Tokyo trading Thursday to 1,253 yen, or $11.95.
-- CNN's Brad Wright contributed to this story.