Published on Monday, September 4, 2000 in the New York Times
Stricter Rules for Tire Safety Were Scrapped by Reagan
by Keith Bradsher
 

DETROIT - After the last huge recall of Firestone tires in 1978, when tread separation problems resulted in hundreds of crashes and dozens of deaths, Congress and regulators made a series of proposals to tighten federal tire standards. But the standards were not revised, and many of the same problems, including some that the proposals were designed to address, have arisen again in the 14.4 million Firestone tires being recalled now.

A Congressional report on the 1978 recall of 14.5 million Firestone 500 tires pointed out that the steel-belted radial tires had easily passed the government's tests -- devised in the late 1960's for biased-ply tires, an earlier technology -- but still failed in large numbers on the road.

Carter administration officials imposed one new requirement on the auto industry in 1980 and began drafting new tire regulations, government documents from that period show.

But all the moves to tighten tire regulation were stopped after Ronald Reagan became president and sought to reduce the regulatory burden on the then-beleaguered American auto industry. The only new rule, involving the disclosure of tires' capacity to carry weight, was rescinded. Also canceled were plans for more stringent tests and for mandatory devices to warn motorists when their tires became underinflated.

Some of the regulatory initiatives abandoned in 1981 are likely to come up again this week, as Congressional committees hold hearings into the current recall.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 1,400 complaints about Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, the bulk involving tires installed on Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles. The complaints and data supplied to the agency by Firestone attribute 88 deaths to the tires. Firestone has recalled all ATX and ATX II tires of the P235/75R15 size, which were made from 1990 to 1996, and has recalled Wilderness tires of the same size made since 1996 at its factory in Decatur, Ill.

The safety agency is also reviewing whether many more Firestone tires may need to be recalled. On Friday, it issued a consumer advisory suggesting that motorists replace another 1.4 million tires that Firestone has refused to recall.

Firestone estimates that 6.5 million of the 14.4 million tires covered in the current recall are on the road, and fewer than half those covered by the advisory.

Two provisions dropped in the early 1980's clearly would have made the current episode easier for consumers.

One would have required that identification numbers be printed on exterior rather than interior sidewalls, making it simpler for consumers to determine if their tires were included in a recall or advisory. Another, enacted before the 1978 recall, required that independent tire dealers keep track of buyers' addresses, so that those customers could be contacted during a recall.

The year before the huge recall of 1978, Firestone had recalled 400,000 similar tires made in Decatur. The company insisted then, as it does now, that the problem was confined to that plant, but company documents obtained by regulators in 1978 showed that Firestone knew of a design defect affecting tires from other factories as well.

The 1978 recall and the current one are the two largest, by a wide margin, since tire regulation began in the 1960's. The earlier recall produced more than 14,000 complaints to regulators, but those complaints cited just 41 deaths. Firestone 500s were car tires, and few cars rolled over when their tires failed. The current recall involves far fewer complaints but more deaths, most of which have occurred when Explorers and other sport utility vehicles rolled over after the tires lost treads.

Even before the recall, House and Senate conferees were scheduled to decide in the next several weeks whether to let regulators proceed with plans to provide consumers with information on vehicles' tendency to roll over. One of the hearings this week will be held by Senator Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who has led efforts to block the release of the information. Senator Shelby, who has been traveling in Africa for the past month, has declined interview requests.

Helen Petrauskas, Ford's vice president for safety and the environment, said in a recent news conference that Ford would favor any new tire regulations that improved safety. Ford opposes regulators' plans to rate vehicles' tendency to roll over, contending that the proposal does not measure this tendency accurately enough. Regulators have defended their plan, pointing out that automakers have opposed attempts to measure rollover propensity.

The government tests tires for endurance by running them for 34 hours at 50 miles per hour, and for speed by running them for 90 minutes at 70 to 85 miles per hour.

Stephen R. Kratzke, the associate administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said regulators were considering more stringent tests. Any new rules would probably not be limited to tires for sport utility vehicles and other light trucks, he said, but would also extend to car tires.

In response to disclosures that Ford subsidiaries overseas began replacing the tires last year, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said today on the ABC program "This Week" that the Clinton administration also wanted legislation requiring manufacturers to report recalls abroad.

Firestone officials declined to comment on whether they felt new tire regulations were needed. But Chuck Sinclair, a spokesman for Goodyear, the market-share leader, said tonight that the company did "see a need for change in the regulations" and had been working on this even before the current recall. Automakers say that they already demand better-quality tires than the regulations require.

Although the cause of the problems in 1978 was never publicly determined, Firestone did make changes to its tires, and the problems stopped. But the episode crippled the company financially and contributed to its takeover in 1988 by the Bridgestone Corporation.

Firestone recovered from the 1978 recall by replacing virtually all the tires itself, which kept customers coming back to its dealers. But Ford has insisted that Firestone reimburse customers who buy other brands this time.

Back in 1981, as the Reagan administration began reviewing its predecessor's regulatory backlog, the American auto industry had laid off 500,000 workers and was close to bankruptcy. Chrysler had just been rescued with government loan guarantees.

While high interest rates and high gasoline prices were partly responsible, auto executives also blamed the high cost of government regulation, and President Reagan sought to ease this burden.

One tire regulation proposed at the end of the Carter administration, and canceled by President Reagan, would have required that vehicles alert their owners to low tire pressure, either with a light on the dashboard or with a red button that would pop up from the tire's valve.

Inflation has been a big issue in the current recall. Firestone has recommended that Explorer tires be inflated to 30 pounds per square inch, after acquiescing for a decade to Ford's recommendation of 26 pounds.

Tom Baughman, Ford's director of light truck engineering, has acknowledged that Explorer tires could suffer damage if the pressure fell below 20 pounds, but said that 26 pounds provided an adequate margin of safety.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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