WASHINGTON – Government investigators are examining data collected by a congressional committee that reportedly shows Ford Motor Co. is replacing Firestone tires with other brands that fail more often.
Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of transportation, told the House Commerce Committee that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would give a preliminary response to its analysis on Wednesday.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Commerce Committee, disclosed the committee's investigation during a hearing Tuesday, but he refused to reveal which tires had higher failure rates until NHTSA has examined the data.
Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said Wednesday that the release of the findings was inappropriate.
"This is really unfortunate the way this is happening," Claybrook said on CBS' "The Early Show." "The Department of Transportation should have been asked to evaluate this information first, then Ford. ... It really should be evaluated quickly and then resolved, as opposed to accusations that are unevaluated."
Tauzin's move also drew strong criticism from Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, senior Democrat on the committee, and Jacques Nasser, chief executive of Ford. They said Tauzin has a responsibility to let the public know such information.
"If we have a brand name that is defective ... at least tell the American people the brand names," Dingell said during a hearing.
Later, Tauzin identified two tire brands, the Goodyear Wrangler HT and the General Grabber AP XL, but did not name five other brands his office said congressional investigators determined had higher failure rates than the Firestone Wilderness AT tires Ford recalled last month.
The replacement tires are made by Michelin, Continental, Goodyear, BF Goodrich and Uniroyal.
Tauzin said the data show that one of the replacement tires has a property damage claims rate of 124 per million tires, well above the nine claims per million that John Lampe, the Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive, said is the average for the Wilderness AT tires being replaced by Ford. Ford had told congressional investigators that the Wilderness AT tires it is replacing had 15 claims per million.
"Are we going to be replacing worse tires for the tires that come off these cars?" Tauzin asked Nasser.
"Mr. Chairman, we shouldn't be waiting 30 days," Nasser replied angrily. "If that data you have is accurate, we should be acting in 30 minutes."
Officials from Goodyear and Continental, which also manufactures the General tire brand, would not comment without having time to review the numbers Tauzin cited.
Goodyear spokesman Chuck Sinclair said the tire maker is aware of no injuries or deaths caused by tread separations for any of the replacement tires it supplied to Ford.
Ford lacks the access Tauzin's committee has because tire makers keep their property damage claims rates confidential. The Commerce Committee has been collecting the information from tire makers for several months.
Ford officials previously said they asked NHTSA about the replacement tires they planned to use and the agency said nothing about safety worries. Tauzin said NHTSA never approved any of the tires that Ford decided to use.
The Wilderness AT has been at the center of a nearly yearlong debate over the safety of Firestone tires. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s voluntary recall of 6.5 million tires last August included the 15-inch version of the Wilderness AT, made at its plant in Decatur, Ill.
The company insisted that other sizes of the tire made at other plants were safe. But last month Ford said it was still concerned about safety and announced it would replace all 13 million Wilderness ATs still on its vehicles.
The Wilderness AT had been standard equipment on the Ford Explorer, the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle. Many of the 203 fatal accidents among the thousands of crashes reported to the highway safety administration in the last year were rollovers of the Explorer that occurred after the tires failed.
Ford insists the problem is the result of flawed tires, but Bridgestone/Firestone says the design of the Explorer also is a factor.
"Ford can replace all our Wilderness AT tires, but Explorers will continue to roll over, and we need to understand why," said Bridgestone/Firestone's Lampe.