Ford Explorer-Firestone Wilderness/ATX Tire Failure and Rollover
On August 9, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone (Firestone) and Ford announced jointly that Firestone would recall approximately 14.4 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires that were original equipment on Ford vehicles, primarily the Ford Explorer, although a small number were used as original equipment on other manufacturers’ vehicles. (NHTSA Recall 00T-005.) The recall covers all P235/75 R15 Firestone ATX and ATX II tires (from 1991 to the present) and all P235/75R15 Wilderness AT tires (from 1996 to the present) manufactured at Firestone’s Decatur, IL plant. Firestone refused to recall the approximately 5.6 million Wilderness AT tires manufactured at its other plants (Joliet, Canada and Wilson, NC) or other models of Wilderness tires. Firestone estimated that approximately 6.5 million of the tires covered by the recall (which include original equipment, replacement, and full-size, non-temporary spare tires) are still on the road.
The recall came after only after intense public scrutiny including multiple House and Senate hearings on who knew what and when. Information uncovered in the Congressional hearings show both Ford and Firestone had early knowledge of tread separation in Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and other Ford vehicles. The Center for Auto Safety was the only consumer group to testify at both the Senate and House hearings. Product liability lawsuits were filed in the early 1990’s on Explorer rollovers caused by Firestone tire failures. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began receiving consumer complaints in 1990-93 and provided Ford and Firestone with summaries of all such complaints as part of its standard policy. In 1996, Arizona state agencies confronted Firestone about tread separations, particularly in hot weather, in Firestone steel-belted radials. In 1998, Ford began receiving complaints on Firestone tire failures on Explorers in other countries. That same year, State Farm Insurance informed NHTSA that it had received 21 damage claim reports on Firestone radial failures. In late 1999, Ford began to replace Firestone tires on Explorers in other countries but failed to notify NHTSA.
Although there are many similarities between the Firestone 500 and the Firestone/Ford tire failures, there is a key difference — the role of the vehicle on which the tires are mounted. In the Firestone 500 recall, there were more tires and complaints (14,000 then versus 2,400 today) but fewer deaths (41 then versus 240 and rising today). The primary vehicle in which Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tire tread separations and deaths have been associated is the Ford Explorer, an SUV which has been marketed as a passenger car. Although the Explorer superficially drives like a passenger car, it is easier for a driver to lose control of an Explorer than a passenger car when a tire fails. When the Explorer goes out of control, it is more likely to roll over than a passenger car, and when it rolls over, its occupants are likely to be injured. A compounding factor is the weak roof on the Explorer which can crush in on a restrained occupant and cause fatal injuries or break the windows or windshield and create portals of ejections. A tread separation or other tire failure can lead to a fatal rollover. A tire made for an SUV like the Explorer should have an extra margin of safety built into it like a nylon ply because the consequences of failure can be so bad.
Internal Ford memos from the late 1980’s when the Explorer was designed showed that it had a rollover propensity as bad as Bronco II which it was replacing. Although Ford engineers recommended major changes including widening the track, these were rejected. One decision that was made was to have a recommended tire inflation pressure of only 26 psi when Ford modeling showed that the Explorer could roll over if tires were inflated to 35 psi. With tires losing about 2 pounds of pressure per month it was foreseeable that the Explorer could easily reach dangerously low levels at which tire damage and failure would occur.
By late 1999, information that Ford and Firestone were settling product liability lawsuits with gag orders reached the Center for Auto Safety (CAS). At about the same time, the number of lawsuits and Explorer rollover accidents had reached such a critical mass that local media in Texas, California and Florida began to investigate and contact. By March 2, 2000, CAS had received so much information that its Executive Director spoke at Clemson University’s Annual Tire Industry Conference attended by auto and tire officials and asked why so many Firestone ATX tires were failing on Ford Explorers and called it the next Firestone 500. At the same time CAS urged NHTSA to open an investigation on this matter which it did on May 2, 2000.
On August 25, CAS sued Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford in US District Court for the District of Columbia to obtain an injunction ordering the replacement of all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires regardless of size and plant where made. This lawsuit is the first ever filed by CAS against auto/tire industry companies and reflects our concerns over the design of these tires for Ford SUVs. In addition to CAS’ lawsuit, over 50 class actions have been filed in state and federal courts. On October 24, 2000, the cases were consolidated in a Multidistrict Litigation Proceeding before Chief Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in Indianapolis, In re BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE, INC. ATX, ATX II, AND WILDERNESS TIRES PRODUCTS LIABILITY LITIGATION, Master File No. IP 00-9373-C-B/S, MDL No. 173. On February 11, 2003. Judge Barker granted Bridgestone/Firestone’s Motion for Summary Judgment, 2003 WL 430491 (S.D. Ind. 2003). Based on the MDL proceeding, CAS’ action was ultimately dismissed.
On September 1, NHTSA requested Firestone to recall 1.4 million more Firestone tires including many models in sizes other than 15″ and in particular 16″ Wilderness AT tires from the Wilson NC plant made for 1996-98 Ford F150s. While Firestone did not do a safety recall, it announced it would replace the 1.4 million tires as part of a service campaign for consumers who requested they be replaced. On September 29, NHTSA opened a second investigation (PE00-040) into Firestone Steeltex radial tires for the same type of tread separation seen on the ATX and Wilderness tires. This investigation was closed without a recall on April 9, 2002. The agency also denied several Defect Petitions filed by the lawfirm of Lisoni & Lisoni on Steel Tex tires, DP02-011 (68 FR 35941, 6-17-03); DP04-004 (69 FR 58221, 9-29-04); DP04-005 (69 FR 58221, 9-29-04).
On May 22, 2001, Ford announced it would replace all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT (15″, 16″, 17″) tires that were original equipment on the Ford Expedition, Explorer, Explorer Sport, Explorer Sport Trac, F-Series, Ranger, Mercury Mountaineer, Mazda B-Series, Navajo Firestone Wilderness AT. On October 4, 2001, NHTSA made an initial decision in its investigation EA00-023 that a safety-related defect exists in Firestone Wilderness AT P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 tires manufactured to the Ford specifications prior to May 1998 that are installed on SUVs. These tires were manufactured primarily at Wilson and Joliette and, to a lesser extent, at Oklahoma City. The initial decision did not apply to the P255/70R16 tires produced at Decatur or any of the Wilderness AT tires produced at Aiken, since these tires were all manufactured after May 1998. Tread separation claims included in the NHTSA’s Firestone claims database involving the recalled and focus tires have been associated with numerous crashes that have led to 74 deaths and over 350 injuries (as of March 2001). Tread separation complaints from all sources included in the ODI consumer complaint database (including the Firestone claims data) that can be identified as involving these tires have reportedly led to 192 deaths and over 500 injuries (as of September 2001). Shortly after NHTSA’ s announcement of its initial determination of a defect, Firestone agreed to recall the 2,800,000 Wilderness tires still on the road covered by the determination. (NHTSA Recall 01T-016.)