WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced Wednesday a voluntary safety recall of 6.5 million tires for light trucks and sport utility vehicles that have been implicated in 46 deaths.

The company said the recall involves all size P235/75R15 Firestone radial ATX and radial ATX II tires produced in North America, and Wilderness AT tires produced at the company's Decatur, Ill., plant.

The company said about 14.4 million of these tires have been produced. The recall follows a yearlong investigation that focused on accident reports involving tire failures, mainly in Southern states while driving in hot weather.

``The company estimates that the number of tires still in use and involved in the recall is 6.5 million, which includes 3.8 million radial ATX and ATX II tires and 2.7 million Wilderness AT tires,'' the statement said.

``At Bridgestone/Firestone, nothing is more important to us than the safety of our consumers,'' said Gary Crigger, Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president.

Crigger said the recall would be conducted in three phases with the first replacements to be offered in Arizona, California and Texas, followed by a second phase in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Recall will follow in the rest of the country after that.

No timetable was given for completion of the recall. The company gave no indication of how much it will cost. Customers will be notified of the recall by mail, said Crigger. The company also has opened a toll-free telephone line: 1-800-465-1904.

``We felt we must take this extraordinary step as a precaution to ensure consumer safety and consumer confidence in our brands,'' Crigger said. ``So, no matter how many tires, no matter how many miles they have on them, we will replace them with new tires.''

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received 270 complaints, including reports of 46 deaths and 80 injuries, about failing Firestone truck tires.

The complaints allege that Firestone tires peel off their casings, sometimes while the vehicles are traveling at high speeds. The mounting safety concerns have prompted Discount Tire, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck and Co. to stop selling the tires.

Most of the accidents reported to NHTSA came from states in warm climates, where heat can affect tire tread bonding and may be associated with an increased rate of tread separation.

``We have not determined what if any problems there may be with the design and manufacture of these tires,'' said Crigger. But he suggested that the failures may be connected with underinflation of the tires in connection with hot driving conditions.

Crigger also said the company's Decatur plant ``is overrepresented in the accident reports,'' suggesting a possible production concern with the tires produced there.

Ford has already replaced Firestone tires for free on vehicles sold in Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia after tires failed in those countries. The company resisted pressure to do so in the United States, saying the matter was under investigation.

General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Subaru also sell the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires as original equipment on SUVs and pickups. All have said they have received no complaints about the tire.

Crigger said his company has worked closely with Ford and NHTSA to determine the cause of accidents involving vehicles with Brigestone/Firestone tires.

He said the data show that while accidents involving such tires are rare considering the millions of tires produced:

_The number of reported incidents with tire size P235/75R15 is higher than with the other sizes in the lines.

_The majority of the incidents have been in Southern states, including Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, which ``suggests there may be a direct correlation between heat and tire performance.''

``In addition, the abundance of concern surrounding these tires clearly indicates the need for this action,'' Crigger said.

Martin Inglis, vice president for Ford North America, said tires are one of the few features of a new vehicle that are under warranty by a supplier instead of the automaker.

``Any time a Ford customer is at risk in any shape or manner, we want to avoid any problems,'' Inglis said.

In 1978, Firestone recalled 14 million of its 500-series tires that had tread separations and blowouts. Federal regulators fined the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. $500,000 then for concealing the safety problems.

Firestone nearly went bankrupt after that recall and was subsequently bought by Bridgestone Corp. in 1988.

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On the Net:

Bridgestone/Firestone: http://www.bridgestone-firestone.com

Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov