Firestone recalls more Wilderness ATs

WASHINGTON - The big tire war lurched toward a cease-fire on Thursday, Oct. 4.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said it would recall nearly 800,000 Firestone Wilderness AT tires, in 15- and 16-inch sizes, most of them mounted on Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers before May 1998.

The announcement was a reversal of the tire company's July 2001 declaration that it would go to court to fight a recall of tires beyond the 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires it took back, beginning in August 2000.

At the same time the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Oct. 4 that it is satisfied that Bridgestone/Firestone's action is sufficient for now to get defective tires off the road, and it will close a defect investigation opened in early 2000.

NHTSA said the Wilderness AT tires being recalled have failed hundreds of times, causing an estimated 50 injuries and 25 deaths. The agency soon will update its count of deaths attributed to various Firestone tires to 271, a spokesman said.

NHTSA added that it will continue to monitor the performance of Wilderness AT tires made since May 1998.

None of the actions involve versions of the Wilderness AT supplied to automakers other than Ford Motor Co.

Ford, meanwhile, is in the process of voluntarily replacing all the 13 million Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles. The automaker claimed in May 2001 its research showed the tires are not as durable or reliable as they should be.

The 13 million tires Ford is replacing include most or all of the 3.5 million Wilderness AT tires that were made before May 1998 and that NHTSA says are defective.

Bridgestone/Firestone says just 768,000 of them remain in service and that's the number it will replace. Neither Ford nor NHTSA officials could confirm the number.

The bottom lines for each of the combatants, according to industry and government officials close to the situation, are as follows:

  • Ford's hand is strengthened if it does seek reimbursement from Bridgestone/Firestone for the tires it has been replacing voluntarily. It also gains credibility in its claim that rollover crashes of the Ford Explorer were the fault of bad tires, not vehicle design.

  • NHTSA does not run the risk of losing a court test of its ability to declare tires defective.

  • Bridgestone/Firestone takes another step toward getting the tire fiasco of the past year behind it.
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