Firestone spreads blame
Company says tires not defective, suggests problems with Ford Explorer
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. suggested Monday that a higher accident rate among Ford Explorers may have contributed to failures of its tires, in the latest sign that the relationship between the tire supplier and the No. 2 auto maker is deteriorating.
In his first public comments since the Japanese company announced Aug. 9 that it would recall 6.5 million tires, a tearful Bridgestone Corp. President Yoichiro Kaizaki said in Tokyo that tires made at the company's U.S. subsidiary were not defective, although he said greater quality control was needed.
Kaizaki, who has been criticized for his slow response to the snowballing scandal, said Bridgestone/Firestone is determined the rebuild the company and the 100-year-old Firestone brand name.
While not explicitly blaming Ford vehicles as the cause for the 134 deaths worldwide linked to Firestone tires, Kaizaki said there appeared to be a high accident rate only for Ford Explorer sports/utility vehicles fitted with the tires and not for other carmakers' vehicles that used the same products.
"There were a lot of accidents on Fords," Kaizaki said. "The accident rate for other cars is dramatically lower."
Ford disputed the implication that the design of the popular Explorer was in some way responsible for the tire failures.
More accidents involved Explorers and the recalled tires because the tire was most commonly found on Explorers, said Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker. The recalled tires were standard equipment on the Explorer and its Mercury twin Mountaineer, while the tires were sold as a replacement part for other vehicles.
"This remains a tire issue, not a vehicle issue," Vaughn said.
Ford also cited faulty Firestone tires as the "common denominator" in 46 auto fatalities involving the Explorer in Venezuela.
In a newspaper advertisement, Ford Venezuela President Enmanuel Cassingena said the "the Explorer is one of the safest vehicles produced today ... if it is driven carefully and equipped with adequate tires."
The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the recall Tuesday in Washington, following last week's day-long grilling of Ford and Firestone officials by other Congressional committees.
CNNfn has learned that Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who sent the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to last week's hearing in his place, will appear before the Senate panel Tuesday to answer lawmaker's questions about why the government did not respond quicker to concerns that the tires were faulty.
Slater said Friday there was no evidence that Bridgestone/Firestone or Ford knowingly misled regulators about tire problems.
Bridgestone disputes Ford claims
In Tokyo, Kaizaki said underinflation of tires or poor maintenance are known to be potential causes of the tread belt separations and punctures suspected in the accidents. Ford recommended a pressure reading on the Explorer tires below the level recommended by Firestone.
Kaizaki added that no structural deficiencies have been found in the tires themselves.
"We didn't recall the tires because we found a defect that caused the accidents," Kaizaki said. "We decided to conscientiously recall the tires having put a top priority on consumer safety."
He also disputed Ford claims that the U.S. carmaker was forced to independently recall Explorers from Saudi Arabia because Firestone refused to take steps to fix tire defects suspected in accidents.
He said that in a joint investigation, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone found that tire problems did not cause the accidents, prompting Ford to assume its responsibility and order the recall.
"There has been talk that there was some sort of cover-up, but I want to stress that there was no such thing," Kaizaki said, referring to allegations that Bridgestone tried to hide potential problems in Firestone tires in the Middle East and South America from U.S. authorities.
Bridgestone picks new PR firm
Bridgestone/Firestone, criticized for its response to the tire scandal, also said that it has chosen the public relations agency Ketchum to represent it. Last week, Fleishman-Hillard International Communications dropped the Bridgestone account.
"We know that we have been slow in responding to public concerns, that we underestimated the intensity of the situation, and that we have been too focused on internal details," Bridgestone CEO Masatoshi Ono said in a statement. "As a result, there is a high degree of concern about our motives and behavior. We are determined to change all that."
The uncertainty surrounding the recall has sent Bridgestone's share price plummeting more than 50 percent in the past month. Shares recovered slightly Monday to close at 1,108 yen ($10.43).
In the close of trading in New York, Ford (F: Research, Estimates) stock was down 38 cents to $25.94.
-- from staff and wire reports