MARGARET WARNER: The Firestone tire controversy moved to Washington
today. Kwame Holman begins our report.
KWAME HOLMAN: There could be no question about he focus of this Capitol
Hill hearing today: Tires. Members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee
on Transportation wanted answers to a central question: Why are there
88 traffic deaths, 250 injuries and 1,400 consumer complaints involving
primarily Ford Explorer utility vehicles equipped with certain types
of Firestone tires? Among those called on to provide the answers were
executives from both companies and the head of the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA. And at the outset, Committee
Chairman Richard Shelby had words of warning for all three.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: If we're here this morning to hear Ford say that
this is solely a tire issue, then this hearing is a waste of a lot of
people's time. If we're hear this morning to hear NHTSA say they did
their job under the controlling statutes, then this Senator's going
to be disappointed in the job that they're doing. And if we're here
this morning to hear Firestone tell us that there isn't something wrong
with these tires, then we've stepped through the looking glass.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last month, the tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone began
a recall of 6.5 million 15-inch ATX , ATXII, and Wilderness tires, which
often come as standard equipment on the Ford Explorer and other sport
utility vehicles. The tire company said the tires showed a high rate
of tread separation. David Pittle represents the watchdog group Consumers
DAVID PITTLE: This is really the combination of two unfortunate situations
coming together. We have a vehicle that has a high center of gravity
that is linked up with a tire that has a tendency to blow out. And when
the tire with a high center of gravity blows out, it's going to have
a greater tendency to roll over and cause serious injury or death.
KWAME HOLMAN: Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA head and now president
of Public Citizen, says the current tire recall doesn't go far enough.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: An analysis that was released last Friday of 90 lawsuits
that have been filed in this issue showed that about 37% of them cover
the non-recalled tires. And I have here today two tires. This is the
15-inch tire and this is the 16-inch tire. And you can see that the
tread separation is about the same with both: The 16 is not being recalled,
the 15 is.
KWAME HOLMAN: Bridgestone/Firestone says it hasn't found any defects
in its tires and says the problems might be the result of tires that
were under inflated. Ford recently recommended drivers increase the
air pressure in the suspect tires on Ford vehicles. But Republican Slade
Gorton of Washington said consumers may be confused.
SEN. SLADE GORTON, (R) Washington: Ford said that the proper pressure
was 26 pounds per square inch before the recall, now it's given a range
of 26 to 30. Bridgestone-Firestone continues to say that it ought to
be 30 pounds per square inch. We called a Ford dealer, Coons College
Park Ford in College Park, Maryland, who said it should be 26 on the
front tires and 35 pounds per square inch on the rear tires. Now, that's
a range from 26 to 35 with three different answers from three different
groups. Consumers deserve better than that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today's hearing came just as news reports revealed Ford
officials recalled the same type of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers
in Saudi Arabia last year but chose not to tell U.S. regulators about
the recall. News reports cited an internal Ford memo that said Firestone
officials had major reservations about the tire recall, feeling the
Transportation Department's NHTSA agency would have to be notified.
Helen Pertrauskus is Ford's Vice President for Safety.
SPOKESMAN: Did someone at Ford notify NHTSA regarding this problem that
HELEN PETRAUSKUS, Vice President, Ford Motor Company: We did not--
SPOKESMAN: Yes, or no.
HELEN PETRAUSKUS: No. We did not notify NHTSA at the time we sent letters
to our dealers Announcing we would replace the Firestone tires our customers
had with Goodyear tires. I might add, if I may, Mr. Chairman, by coincidence
the day before, the day before the memorandum that you've referred to
we received a letter from Bridgestone-Firestone telling us that in their
view there was nothing defective about the tires we had in the MidEast
-- nothing defective, and that their U.S. performance of those tires
was very good. The reason they had sent us the letter is because we
asked for it. We wanted as we were taking the action in the Middle East,
we wanted to be sure that there was no application of this issue to
KWAME HOLMAN: Ultimately Ford unilaterally paid for replacement tires.
Gary Crigger is planning director at Bridgestone-Firestone.
GARY CRIGGER: We had a joint survey of the tires in question in Saudi
Arabia with Ford. The investigation of those tires showed that the majority
of them had been run under inflated, I believe she's talked about anecdotally
about that as well before. Before, there were instances of it being
run to run in sand and then not being reinflated. There were a number
of punctures. So there was nothing to lead us to believe that the tire
itself was defective.
KWAME HOLMAN: Across the capitol this afternoon, two House Commerce
subcommittees combined forces to hold their own hearing on the tire
problem. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was invited to testify.
He sent NHTSA administrator Sue Bailey, three weeks on the job, in his
place. Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin wasn't happy.
REP. BILLY TAUZIN: This is a life or death hearing involving safety
issues on the highways of America, and I'm astounded that the Secretary
of Transportation, who is in town today, and who was twice requested,
twice by the committee, once by me personally in a letter just yesterday
and publicly over the airwaves to attend this hearing could not find
time to be with us today to help solve some of these issues.
KWAME HOLMAN: After nearly two hours of opening statements by committee
members, questioning began. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey asked Bailey
whether performance tests her agency currently conducts on sport utility
vehicles and their tires are reliable.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: My question is are we testing these tires for the
right conditions? Does NTHSA need to subject these tires to a different
more rigorous standard because they are intended for SUV's and are advertised
for use beyond that which an ordinary automobile would be used?
SUE BAILEY, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: The tire
standards clearly need updating. They originally started 30 years ago,
and we have not had an update to my knowledge since 1968.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: To the test which we're using today is still a 32-year-old
test, even though SUV's are advertised for use off the road and ultimately
when they come back on to the road may have been subjected to conditions
that ordinary tires would not have been?
SUE BALEY: Exactly, and that's part of why we would want to update these
KWAME HOLMAN: It wasn't until early evening that Bridgestone's Firestone's
Mesatoshi Ono was able to sit down to testify. But he mostly relied
on other Firestone executives to answer the committee's question. Chairman
Tauzin immediately asked about the Ford memo, indicating Firestone officials
requested Ford's plans to replace tires in Saudi Arabia.
SPOKESMAN: Were you personally aware of your legal department's position
that it didn't want DOT to find out about a recall in Saudi Arabia?
MR. ONO: That I am not aware of.
SPOKESMAN: Were you aware of it?
ROBERT WYRANT: I'm not aware of that discussion and did not participate
in it. I'm aware that there were some discussions involved with that,
but that was through counsel, I believe.
SPOKESMAN: So you all are aware that were there were discussions involving
not to have a recall because it would trigger information to D.O.T.?
ROBERT WYRANT: I'm not aware of the direction that you stated. I'm only
aware that there was a conversation concerning that reporting process.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ford's chief executive Jac Nasser was scheduled to be
the committee's final witness.