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The Big Blowup

As this Alice-in-Wonderland inauguration approaches, during which a president who may or may not have actually been elected will be gloriously and officially sworn into office, it would be nice to be able to trust somebody -- like maybe your tire company. For four months straight I tried my best to do just that, even though everywhere we went, people pointed at our tires. One of the last times it happened we were all loaded into my 1997 Ford Explorer, ready to head out for a Sunday excursion. We, in this case, meant me, my 14-year-old son, Will, two of his best friends, plus a tangle of skateboards, pads and helmets. Our destination was the boys‘ favorite indoor skate park, 45 miles north of our house. Just before getting on the 101 freeway, I pulled into a gas station for a quick fill-up, and two 19-year-olds in a Camry cruised by and glanced in our direction.

”Hey, look!“ barked the Camry driver at a volume intended to be within our earshot, his left arm gesturing out the window toward our vehicle. ”They’ve got those exploding tires!“

Yes, indeed, we surely did. We had Wilderness ATs, the tires recalled by Firestone last summer on account of their habit of parting from their treads at sudden and inopportune moments. It seems that when these ATs separate at freeway speed, they often cause the Explorer wearing them to roll. At present count, tire failures by ATs and two other Firestone tire models, the ATX and the ATX II, have led to 148 deaths and more than 681 injuries in the U.S. alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This tally of crashes ranks among the highest number of fatalities and injuries the agency has ever recorded in its 30-year history of defect investigations.

2000 was a record-smashing year for auto-related defects in general. In addition to last summer‘s BridgestoneFirestone recall of 6.5 million tires, the largest automotive recall in U.S. history, there have been an unprecedented number of recalls on everything from infant car seats to school buses. In early November, the Ford Motor Co. announced that it was recalling 430,000 Ford Mustangs because of a faulty parking brake. A few weeks later, Ford issued a recall of 846,000 Explorers. Last fall, Continental-General tires were linked to a string of fatal tread-separation accidents, and, on November 21, federal regulators announced they were looking into a possible Goodyear exploding-tire problem. Yet it’s the Wilderness AT tire that continues to cause an ongoing controversy. Eight weeks ago, Firestone announced it had exchanged 80 percent of its hazardous tires. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. As with the Florida election recounts, the truth is in the eye of each beholder, and the facts of the situation vary wildly depending upon whom you ask.

I bought my Wilderness ATs new from my local Ford dealership this past July 24, exactly 16 days before the recall was announced on August 9. When the news broke, I quickly called the dealer to ask how I might get my tires replaced. The service manager himself got on the phone with me, his tone concerned and accommodating. ”Just bring your Explorer on in,“ he said. ”We‘ll get you fixed up as fast as we can.“ When I arrived at the Ford lot, an earnest, 20-something mechanic, whom I’ll call Matt, told me that he would first have to check to make sure that my tires were part of the recall.

”What do you mean?“ I wanted to know. ”Of course they‘re part of the recall.“

Matt patiently explained that the only ATs eligible for replacement were those made at the Firestone plant in Decatur, Illinois. Those were the ones causing all the trouble, he said. With that, he rolled under my Explorer and began looking for what is known as the DOT code, a set of distinguishing letters and numbers printed on every tire’s inside wall indicating where it was manufactured. The Decatur tires have a DOT code beginning with the letters VD. After a minute or two of poking about, Matt rolled out once again. ”Great news,“ he announced. ”Your tires are all 8Xs. Not a VD in the bunch. That means they‘re perfectly safe.“

I stared at the tires, then back at Matt. ”Says who? Firestone?“

That would be the same Firestone who pronounced the Decatur ATs safe until the fatalities and the lawsuits started piling up. I said as much to Matt, who appeared to wish he were elsewhere. When I spoke to the service manager, he didn’t seem any happier. ”All we know is what Ford and Firestone tell us,“ he said. ”I just hope they‘re correct and I’m not lying to my customers.“

At home, my son accosted me the minute I walked in the door. ”Did you get new tires?“

”Um, no,“ I told him. ”See, we don‘t have the bad Wilderness ATs. We have the good Wilderness ATs that are not part of the recall because, um, they’re perfectly safe.“

”Yeah, right,“ Will said. ”Do you believe that?“ I admitted I didn‘t know.

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.

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 . . .“

”Don‘t even say it,“ I snapped, and hung up.

One multinational down, one to go. I e-mailed Jacques Nasser, president and CEO of the Ford Motor Co. (Nasser, if you remember, was the guy with the Australian accent who spoke in those post-recall Ford commercials.) It was more of a rant than a letter. ”How can I convince my son that his mother is providing for his safety,“ I wrote, ”given all the information about Wilderness AT tire failures all over the world?“

I heard from the Ford folks right away. Could I fly in to meet with them, face to face, they wanted to know. ”Um, a phone meeting will be fine,“ I assured them. Nasser himself called a few mornings later. He was very smart, very savvy, and had read my letter carefully enough that he could quote pieces of it back to me. ”I think it’s good that your son is checking the air pressure,“ he said. ”That thing about him calling your Explorer the ‘rollover machine,’ that really got to me.“ Nasser described in detail how he‘d personally considered every nuance of the recall problem. ”Based on what I’ve seen, we know that the Decatur tires were a bad batch. And the Venezuelan tires are very bad. So we‘re trying to get those tires off the road as fast as we can.“ The rest of the Wilderness AT tires were world-class, Nasser maintained. ”But, as you say, who knows? The bottom line is, if you’re uncomfortable with your tires . . .“

”I‘m uncomfortable with them,“ I said.

”Then we’ll replace them. I want your son to feel safe again. Look,“ he added, ”I have four kids. Between them, they‘ve got three Explorers. And all of their tires are non-recall Wilderness ATs.“

Nasser knew I was a journalist. And I knew I was being handled. Nonetheless, it was hard not to like him. The Firestone people also knew they were talking to a reporter, yet they blew me off without so much as a blink -- not once, but three times. Furthermore, by doing the right thing, albeit belatedly, Nasser understood he was throwing the door open to other Explorer owners who wanted their non-recall ATs replaced. Still, acting righteously by your customer is, in the long run, smart business. Maybe Jacques Nasser understands that too.

”We’re going to get you and your son some new tires,“ Nasser repeated.

After I hung up, I hurried to Will‘s bedroom to tell him the news. ”We did it,“ I said.

Will nodded sagely. ”Damn straight.“

Ford was true to its word. Two days after my conversation with Nasser, his assistant called to find out which dealership was nearest our house. By the end of the week, I was driving around on four brand-new Michelins, with a fifth Michelin tucked in the undercarriage as a spare. So do Will and I feel safer now that the Wilderness ATs are finally out of our lives? Yep, as a matter of fact, we do. And do we like Ford better because of it? Damn straight.

POSTSCRIPT: This past Monday, January 8, Ford along with BridgestoneFirestone reached a settlement on the first Wilderness AT lawsuit set to go to trial since the recall began. A 44-year-old Texas woman named Donna Bailey sued after being paralyzed from the neck down during the March 10 crash of a friend’s Ford Explorer. It seems the vehicle rolled when the tread separated from one of its non-recall Wilderness AT tires. A lawyer for Bailey described the agreed-upon amount to be ”far in excess of anything I‘ve ever heard of in any automotive liability settlement.“ At the same time, BridgestoneFirestone chairman John Lampe continued to maintain that the Wilderness AT failures were due solely to two factors: problems at the Decatur plant and the design of the Ford Explorer. ”Our recall initiated in August was more than adequate to protect the public,“ Lampe stated in a recent press release. Uh-huh. Well, I think it’d be productive for each of us AT owners -- present and former -- to drop Mr. Lampe a cheery little New Year‘s note. Be sure to mention the word boycott.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For those frustrated non-recall Wilderness AT tire owners who have thus far been unable to get their tires replaced, here‘s what I suggest:

1. First of all, check to see if you have these tires: Wilderness AT P23 575R15 or P25570R16.

2. If your tires are among the designs listed, but are made at a different factory than those previously eligible for replacement, go to your dealer armed with this article. Tell your service manager that Ford corporate appears to be replacing some non-recall ATs upon request and ask the service manager to do it for you. If the dealer is not responsive, ask him or her to contact Ford corporate headquarters to check out the policy. Say you are positive the Ford Motor Co. wants to keep its customers happy.

E-mail me the results of your experience at celestefremon@aol.com.

This story was first published by MSNBC Interactive News, L.L.C.