Tire Industry Under Scrutiny From Firestone Debacle

By Peter Strozniak Because of the massive recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, the whole tire-manufacturing industry has come under scrutiny, says Robert Simmons, executive director of the International Tire Exhibition and Conference (ITEC), which opens today in Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of the U.S. tire industry. The ITEC will host 2,500 delegates and exhibitors from at least 25 countries. More than 80 technical papers will be presented, and the ITEC will sponsor its first-ever awards program to recognize the top tire technological advancements in the 20th century. But Simmons concedes the biennial event will be somewhat tarnished because of the Bridgestone/Firestone recall and its serious implications for the tire industry. "This year's event takes place under a cloud of uncertainty, generated by the storm of publicity surrounding Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s voluntary recall of millions of Firestone-brand light truck tires implicated as a cause in hundreds of traffic accidents," Simmons said in a prepared statement. "Even though the ongoing government investigation of the accidents [focus] only on Bridgestone/Firestone, the entire industry has come under scrutiny." For example, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a bill last week that would require U.S. tire and automakers to notify the U.S. Dept. of Transportation within two days of voluntary or mandatory overseas product recalls. The bill also provides for criminal penalties for manufacturers who fail to comply with the U.S. notice requirement. Leahy says between August 1999 and Spring 2000, nearly 47,000 Firestone tires were replaced overseas. "Relevant information about safety problems abroad can save lives and accelerate remedial action here at home," Leahy said in statement on the bill. Today there is no legal requirement for manufacturers of motor vehicles and their components to notify U.S. agencies of a foreign recall unless the company suspects that a part in the U.S. is known to be defective. Leahy said Ford blamed driver abuse for the tire problems experienced overseas and did not inform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While launching its own investigation into the cause of the problem, Bridgestone/Firestone has denied early knowledge of defects. The tires that have been recalled were produced at Firestone's plant in Decatur, Ill. Firestone has so far replaced about 2 million tires. However, in recent news reports Bridgestone Corp. President Yoichiro Kaizaki in Tokyo suggested that the fatal accidents blamed on the tires were not caused by defects. And while no quality problems have been found, Kaizaki admitted that Bridgestone should have exercised greater quality control in its U.S. operations, the Associated Press reported. While the controversy over this tire recall is expected to go on for months, perhaps years, Simmons says that the tire industry's track record over time is commendable. Over the last 20 years, he says, U.S. tire companies manufactured and sold 5 billion tires with few failures. "No manufactured product is immune to failure -- and we in no way want to downplay the seriousness of the current investigation and the injuries and deaths connected with it -- but the tire industry's track record over time is commendable," Simmons says.

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