By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Well, then, in view of his findings, did Dr. Govindjee think my tires could be trusted? ”Hmmm,“ he said, ”tough call. We’ll know more around the first of the year.“
Consumer advocate Sean Kane was more definitive. ”Should you trust your tires? Absolutely not,“ said Kane, a partner of Strategic Safety, a Virginia research firm specializing in motor-vehicle-defect investigations, and one of the first organizations to push for the Firestone recall. ”Firestone documents show that Wilderness ATs from all four North American plants have the same design and are made with essentially the same materials. Plus, if the problem was really due to a unique condition at Decatur, then the various other tire models being made at the plant during the same time period ought to be failing at a similar rate, which they‘re not.“ Out of 1,963 Firestone-related complaints to NHTSA in which the tire model could be clearly identified, said Kane, only 284 were about tires included in the recall. The other 1,679 complaints had to do with tires outside the recall, most of which were Wilderness ATs or similar tires. ”Look,“ he continued, ”once the weather warms up again next summer, I think we’re going to see a whole lot more of these non-recall tires fail.“
Kane‘s hot-weather reference brought up another bewildering point. Firestone’s people had claimed that the South American and Saudi tire failures were due largely to high temperatures and rough road conditions, plus heavy cargo loads. Oh, great, I thought. Will and I live in a rural canyon in sunny Southern California, meaning our tires are subject to both heat and rough roads on a regular basis. That‘s why I bought the Explorer in the first place. I also bought it to haul around the huge piles of lumber that Will uses to build skateboard ramps for himself and his friends. The Explorer is, after all, essentially a truck. And Wilderness ATs are supposed to be truck tires. So what are we talking about here?
After speaking to Kane, I was seized by an even scarier thought: Our old tires -- the ones we bought our new ATs to replace -- had the DOT code W2, indicating they were made at Wilson. I got rid of those tires last summer after we’d had two nasty blowouts in a row -- one in June, a second in July. Luckily, both blowouts occurred when I was traveling at a very low speed, around 20 mph. In each instance, the tire blew just minutes after getting off the freeway, with a car full of kids after one of those weekend trips to the skateboard park. At the time, I attributed the blowouts to normal wear and tear. But after researching the issue, I wasn‘t so sure. I mean, what would have happened if the tires had blown when we were going 65 miles per hour? Would my son be dead now? Would his friends be dead?
Will had mentioned the blowouts several times, so clearly the same thoughts plagued him. After watching a news broadcast that featured an exceptionally horrific AT-related crash, he began to check the air pressure on our tires at least once a week. And he was also starting to refer to our once-cherished Explorer as ”the rollover machine.“
What could I honestly say to reassure him? I wondered. And what should I say to the parents of the boys who constantly pile in and out of my car. I’d seen several of those parents glancing with obvious unease at my tires. Until I could sort out the issue, I decided to suspend all freeway trips with Will and his friends. It just wasn‘t worth the worry. I still drove the freeway myself. I had to, for work. The way I figured it, if something happened I’d only kill myself, not the kids.
In a last-ditch effort to resolve our collective fears, I called NHTSA directly and outlined what I knew to Rae Tyson, the agency‘s main spokesperson on the tire issue. At first,Tyson was predictably noncommittal: NHTSA was still gathering data and research on all the ATs, he said, but it couldn’t release its findings to the public yet. I continued to press. ”Do you have kids?“ I asked him. He did -- a son, 15, and an 18-year-old daughter who had recently received her license.
”So, if you were in my position, what would you do? Would you drive your son around on my tires? Would you let your daughter drive on them?“
There was a long pause. ”I can‘t speak officially for the agency,“ Tyson said finally. ”But if you want my personal opinion, with what I’m seeing I‘d get those tires of yours changed.“
So there it was. I had to get rid of the Wilderness ATs, recall or no recall. But before I gouged $600 out of my freelance writer’s budget, I figured I‘d try one last time to get either Firestone or Ford to step up to the plate. I called Firestone first.
Once again, I got senior spokesperson Dave Samson. ”We understand your concerns,“ Samson told me after I’d presented the fine points of my case. But although I could have my tires checked for wear by my local Firestone retailer, in terms of replacement, there was nothing BridgestoneFirestone could do at this time. ”We believe your tires are perfectly . . .“