By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Will had hit upon one of the most nerve-racking aspects of modern existence: the fact that, in too many areas of our lives, we are increasingly forced to rely upon the good will of gigantic corporations, which may or may not have our best interests at heart -- especially when our interests run counter to the corporate profit margin.
Over the next few weeks, I kept an eye on the news, hoping that Firestone would widen the recall. In September, NHTSA issued a ”consumer advisory,“ suggesting that additional Firestone tires were also dangerous, among them the 16-inch Wilderness ATs made in the plant in Wilson, North Carolina. Tread separations in these models ”exceed those of the recalled tires, sometimes by a large margin,“ wrote NHTSA and urged Firestone to pull them off the road. Firestone refused, but said they would trade out the Wilson-made tires for any customers who really insisted.
Groovy, I thought, and called the Firestone recall hot line to see if my tires qualified. A woman with a well-modulated voice informed me that no, they did not. According to my DOT code, she said, my Wilderness tires were made in Aiken, South Carolina, not Wilson, North Carolina. ”So yours are perfectly safe,“ she said.
Time for me to do my own investigation. A few rounds with an Internet search engine produced a collection of Web sites and newsgroups featuring scores of angry postings from people whose non-recall ATs had come apart. In addition, I found that several independent safety organizations were urging the recall of all the ATs, and that Ford had quietly replaced Wilderness ATs in six other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Malaysia and Thailand. Where were those tires made? I wanted to know. Surely not all in Decatur.
I phoned the BridgestoneFirestone corporate offices several times but reached no one who had a grip on this information. Finally, I mentioned the magic word: reporter. A pleasant fellow named Dave Samson called back within the hour to say that the company had 17 different tire plants, but the Wilderness AT tires are made only in four North American locations: Decatur, Wilson, Aiken, and Joliette, Canada. There was also a fifth plant making the ATs, in Valencia, Venezuela.
After some additional checking, Samson was able to confirm that the faulty Saudi tires were shipped from the Decatur, Wilson and Joliette plants. He wasn’t sure where ATs replaced in Thailand and Malaysia had come from. He could say, however, that the tires replaced in the three South American countries were all made in Venezuela.
I reviewed my findings: The Decatur ATs were definitely bad, hence the recall. According to NHTSA‘s consumer advisory, some of the ATs from Wilson were equally bad. (Although the NHTSA advisory named only the 16-inch Wilson ATs, I was able to download the list of the agency’s 4,308 complaints to date, which suggested that significant numbers of 15-inch Wilson ATs had also come apart.) And clearly, the Venezuelan-made ATs were questionable. In fact, according to a CBS 60 Minutes broadcast, the Venezuelan ATs were so dreadful that an attorney who once represented Ford and Firestone in that country had now turned against both companies. It seemed the Wilderness ATs on his son-in-law‘s Explorer failed, and the vehicle flipped. Now the young man was permanently brain-damaged, and the lawyer father-in-law was leading a countrywide crusade to have criminal charges brought against Ford and Firestone.
By my count, that left Wilderness ATs from one lone plant that had not been tainted by recalls, voluntary replacements, consumer advisories andor accusations of criminal malfeasance -- namely the Wilderness ATs from Aiken. My Wilderness ATs. So, as a logical person, should I conclude that my tires are ”perfectly safe“?
I called Dave Samson back to ask him. Instead I got his colleague James Loduca, who assured me that, in Firestone’s official opinion, my tires were fine. ”The facts are not in yet about why the Decatur tires failed,“ Loduca added, ”but when I lie awake late at night, in my gut I feel the problem has more to do with the design of the Explorer. Did you know that half the failures were on the left rear tire?“ He paused for dramatic effect. ”Now what does that tell you?“
Actually, I wasn‘t sure what it told me. To find out, I called Dr. Sanjay Govindjee, the highly regarded UC Berkeley professor Firestone has hired to examine the tread-separation problem. When I told Dr. Govindjee what Loduca had suggested, he began to laugh. ”Someone at Firestone said that? Let’s just say that‘s a statement from somebody who wants to put the best light on the situation from his own perspective.“ Govindjee explained that the higher incidence of problems with the left rear tire was only one of the many factors he and his team examined to determine what had caused the Firestone treads to separate. Although they had yet to pinpoint the exact cause, he said, in general it was likely to be a combination of three variables: design, materials, and environmental influences such as wear, age and load.
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