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Papers: Tire Pressure Worried Ford

September 12, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Ford Motor Co. says its recommendation for inflation pressure on Firestone tires had nothing to do with safety problems, but documents turned over to congressional investigators show at least some company officials weren’t so sure.

For foreign and domestic customers, Ford suggested lower tire pressure than what the manufacturer, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., recommended, saying it would improve the ride. Critics have said the move was to try to limit the possibility of rollovers among certain Ford vehicles that come with the tires, notably the Explorer.

An internal Ford document marked as a draft and dated July 8, 1999, expressed concern that the lower pressure recommended in Venezuela might have contributed to tread detachments. Other factors listed included high temperatures, improper repairs, off-road use, extended high-speed travel and overload.

The memo was dated 10 months before Ford issued a recall of the tires in Venezuela, where 46 fatalities have been linked to the tires, and more than a year before a U.S. recall of the tires.

A Ford chart dated May 5, 2000, shows that when the Venezuelan tires were tested at 28 pounds per square inch they were less safe than tires inflated to 30 pounds, the level recommended by Bridgestone/Firestone.

Another Ford document dated May 24, 2000 _ three weeks after the U.S. government opened an investigation into the tires _ was nearly identical to the June 1999 document but omitted the paragraph that referred to tire pressure.

``Why correct the problem if there was no problem, as Ford has steadfastly insisted? It doesn’t add up,″ said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, who is leading a House investigation of the tires.

Ford officials did not returns phone calls seeking comment but have insisted that problems with the tires were not due to pressure recommendations. They say the company recommends the same psi on Explorer tires made by Goodyear and does not have the high rates of tread separation associated with the Firestone tires.

Ford has come under fire for beginning a Firestone tire recall in 16 foreign countries more than a year before the U.S. recall started. No law required Ford to notify U.S. authorities, and the company did not, believing the problems were related to driving conditions unique to those countries.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said he would introduce legislation on Tuesday to address the issue. Called the Transportation Reporting Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, it would require auto and tire manufacturers to report foreign defects to U.S. officials and update U.S. tire safety standards, among other provisions.

Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last month, many of which are original equipment on light trucks and sport utility vehicles made by Ford. NHTSA has warned that an additional 1.4 million Firestone tires also are dangerous and should be replaced. Bridgestone/Firestone disputes that claim.

The agency says 88 U.S. deaths may be linked to the tires. Venezuela’s consumer protection agency has called for criminal charges against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone officials for 46 deaths in that country.

Last week, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono went before Tauzin’s panel and apologized for the problems. Ford CEO Jac Nasser promised Ford would now notify U.S. officials when it makes any safety changes overseas.

Both are expected to testify Tuesday before the Senate Commerce Committee chaired by John McCain, R-Ariz. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, criticized by some for not appearing last week, also is scheduled to testify.

Congressional investigators have collected thousands of documents as they try to determine when the companies first knew of problems with the tires.

In a January 1999 e-mail, Ford export market executive Glenn Drake expressed skepticism about Bridgestone/Firestone’s claim that tire problems were due to poor repairs or customers driving on underinflated tires. He said three customers who had tread separations on their tires were not accepting the answer and were threatening to sue the automaker and the dealer.

``We now have three cases and is it possible that Firestone is not telling us the whole story to protect them from a recall or lawsuit,″ Drake wrote in the e-mail to product concerns supervisor Melanie Gumz. ``I feel it is possible, and we owe it to our customers and our shareholders to investigate this for our own piece (sic) of mind.″

Drake recommended Ford do an analysis of the tires, but the automaker continued to rely on Bridgestone/Firestone’s analysis. Ford officials have said they had no reason to believe there was a defect, but began replacing the tires in the Middle East in August 1999 as customer complaints mounted.

___

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

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