Why Ford and Firestone Need Uncle Sam

With federal safety regulators taking a back seat as the companies feud, it could be years before the facts come out -- and motorists are safe

By Nicole St. Pierre

While Firestone and Ford throw public punches over who should shoulder blame for 174 deaths associated with Firestone-tire blowouts on Ford Explorers and other SUVs, nervous consumers may be wondering: Where's the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in all this? After all, this is the federal agency charged with investigating safety defects.

It's a good question -- but one the Bush Administration seems in no rush to answer. NHTSA has no boss. Clinton appointee Sue Bailey left the agency in January, and President Bush has yet to fill the seat. And it probably won't be filled for several more months, at least. No one has even been nominated yet. That makes it unlikely NHTSA will take any decisive action this year. "A government agency without an administrator cannot act as quickly as one fully staffed," says Representative Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee.


  True, NHTSA isn't usually a high-profile agency -- in fact, it's often one of the last federal agencies to draw a new President's attention. But the lack of leadership could become problematic if NHTSA decides to order a broader Firestone-tire recall this summer, safety groups say.

Why? If Firestone refuses to recall its tires, as it declined to do last September, NHTSA will have to work with the Justice Dept. to order a recall. "Right now, NHTSA has no liaison in the government. There's no chief to push the investigation along," says Clarence Ditlow, president of Ralph Nader's consumer group Strategic Safety, which is based in Arlington, Va. "Both companies are trying to sway public opinion, and NHTSA is burying its head in the sand."

Behind closed doors, NHTSA has been investigating suspect Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires since May 2, 2000. Originally, the investigation was supposed to be wrapped up in six months. Now findings aren't expected until the end of summer -- at the earliest.


  The decision to drag out the investigation isn't encouraging. If Ford hadn't moved on its own to order the replacement of suspect Firestone tires on May 22, they would be on the road in summer heat. That's when NHTSA's own data shows tires are most prone to blowouts. If the agency needed more staff or dollars to speed testing along, it should have alerted lawmakers. Could elected officials, who govern in the public spotlight, really afford to turn a deaf ear? Doubtful. "Over the years, NHTSA has lost its will and lost its way," laments David Pittle, technical director of Consumers Union.

Equally unsettling: NHTSA hasn't opened a separate investigation into the Ford Explorer's design, even though government data shows ATX and Wilderness tires have a higher failure rate on the Explorer than any other SUV. "There should be two investigations," says Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator.

NHTSA has been dismissive of claims from national safety groups that the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires are both at fault. "Firestone may make a bad tire. But for some reason, this is the worst vehicle on which to put that tire," says Sean Kane of Strategic Safety. Meanwhile, Venezuela safety officials are moving to ban the Explorer's sale because of a high number of rollover incidents -- some of which occurred on tires other than Firestones.


  To be fair, NHTSA has offered some limited guidance to motorists. It has advised drivers that if an alternate brand, such as Goodyear, is placed on a Ford Explorer, it's less likely to fail. But "this is purely a tire issue. We have no reason to investigate the Explorer," says NHTSA spokesperson Tim Hurd.

Shouldn't the agency err on the side of caution and investigate both the tire and the vehicle? If NHTSA's investigation shows there's no flaw in the Firestone tire, they'll likely have to start looking at the Explorer, anyway. In that case, it could be years before drivers know if they're safe. This fight needs an independent referee now.

St. Pierre covers transportation issues for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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