September 12, 2000
KWAME HOLMAN: Executives from Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone tires were back on Capitol Hill today, summoned for the third time in less than a week to testify about defective tires linked to 88 U.S. traffic deaths and hundreds of injuries. Last week's hearings centered on Ford's and Firestone's prior knowledge of the problems and how quickly they addressed them. Today Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain said he wanted to focus on what should be done next.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Let me be clear. It's not my intention to use today's hearings to lay blame upon any individual company or government agency. The liability of the parties involved would be appropriately determined through ongoing investigations and eventually the courts. The fact is, we all share the blame equally when the system fails.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, several committee members revisited accusations Ford and Firestone reacted too slowly to evidence of tread separation problems with Firestone ATX., ATX II, and Wilderness tires mounted on Ford Explorers. Customer complaints from 16 foreign countries prompted Ford to replace those tire models long before the U.S. recall issued last month. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater testified on the tire controversy for the first time today. He said his agency's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, should be given broad new powers in several areas, including a mandate to be notified when auto safety issues arise in foreign countries.
RODNEY SLATER: Our legislative proposal will require manufacturers to report information about potential defects in vehicles or equipment that first come to light even if that might be in foreign countries, if that information relates to in any way vehicles or equipment in the United States. Due to the lack of this requirement, we did not learn about the problems Ford and Firestone were having in Saudi Arabia and other countries until after we opened our own investigation in May of this year. It is this provision, we believe, that if enacted, will ensure, again, that this kind of situation never happens again.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye asked Slater why NHTSA didn't get word of the large-scale Firestone tire problems overseas sooner than it did.
SEN. DANIEL INOUYE, (D) Hawaii: Each embassy has two very senior members, professional-- defense attaché and a commercial attaché, and we are very proud of them. They feed us information of all sorts. When did you first learn about the Malaysian situation?
RODNEY SLATER: It was only after we began our own investigation that we...
SEN. DANIEL INOUYE: The commercial attaché did not tell you that this --
RODNEY SLATER: We did not he any...
SEN. DANIEL INOUYE: -- got involved in some of activity there 1998?
RODNEY SLATER: We did not have that kind of information before we began our own investigation.
SEN. DANIEL INOUYE: The commercial attaché advised your agency that in 1999Fo rd had recalled 6,800 vehicles to replace the Firestone tires? That's big news, isn't it?
RODNEY SLATER: Well, it should be. But again, we just didn't... didn't have the information.
KWAME HOLMAN: Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono took his turn at the witness table and, as he did last week, apologized to the American people.
MASATOSHI ONO, CEO, Bridgestone/Firestone: As a chief executive officer I come before you to express my deep regret and sympathy to you and the American people, and especially the families who have lost these terrible auto accidents.
KWAME HOLMAN: But it was John Lampe, a senior vice president, who did most of the talking.
JOHN LAMPE, Executive Vice President, Bridgestone/Firestone: There are other question that still must be answered in this complex puzzle. The entire issue of tire pressure selected by the vehicle manufacturers must be addressed. Does it provide adequate safety margin to guard against damage caused by under inflation and overloading? For example, at 26 PSI, at 26 pounds per square inch, the Ford Explorer has little safety margin to guard against overloading-- one of the reasons that we have recommended 30 PSI for that vehicle. Problems can and do occur if the air pressure drops below the originally specified level.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Lampe said tire failure s just part of the problem.
JOHN LAMPE: Tires will fail. And they do fail for a number of reasons. But in most cases, the experience of a tire failure, the driver can bring that automobile under safe control. However, we have seen an alarming number of serious accidents from rollovers of SUV's after a tire failure. Federal data shows that there have been over 16,000 rollovers with the Ford Explorer, causing 600 deaths. The tire failure has been involved in only a very, very small percentage of these deaths.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Ford President and CEO Jacques Nasser insisted Explorers fitted with other tires had a very good safety record.
JACQUES NASSER: Mr. Chairman, there are almost three million Goodyear tires on Ford Explorers that have not had a tread separation problem here in the U.S. market. And data compiled by the Department of Transportation shows that the Explorer has a safety record that is second to none, particularly when you compare it to the average passenger car and competitive sport utility vehicle. So based on these facts-- and that's what we need to be driven by here-- based on these facts, we know that this is a Firestone tire issue, not a vehicle issue.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Nasser claimed Firestone knew it had a tire problem long before it shared that information with Ford.
JACQUES NASSER: Ford did not know that there was a defect with the tires until we virtually pried the claims data from Firestone's hands in late July, early August, and analyzed it ourselves. It was only then-- and that was only a few days before the recall was announced-- that Ford engineers found conclusive evidence at that point that the tires were defective. We then demanded that Firestone pull the tires from the road. Now, if I have one regret looking back on all of this, it's that we did not ask Firestone the right questions sooner.
KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman McCain concluded the hearing by predicting that before it adjourns in October, Congress will pass legislation to increase safety requirements on all automobiles.