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NHTSA says Firestone tire replacement program satisfies its concerns

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It looks like the potential feud between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS) is over before it got started.

On the same day NHTSA released the results of its Wilderness AT tire analysis, BFS announced a replacement program for two Wilderness AT sizes that will close the investigation.

NHTSA officially announced that "a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists in certain Firestone Wilderness AT tires installed on sport utility vehicles." It singled out two sizes -- P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 -- manufactured by BFS prior to May 1998 that were supplied to Ford Motor Co. as original equipment.

The decision "does not apply to other tire sizes of Wilderness AT tires, such as those supplied by (BFS) to General Motors and Toyota as original equipment, since those tires have different design features and have experienced relatively few tread separations," says NHTSA. However, the decision did encompass any OE Ford tires also sold as replacement tires.

BFS says it will replace P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 Wilderness AT tires produced before May 1998 that are still in use on SUVs and light trucks.

A BFS spokesperson wanted to make it clear that it was the company's decision to include Ford pickups as part of the program (NHTSA specifically limited its decision to SUVs) because it was aware that some of those same tires were OE on the Ford Ranger. In addition, it was realistic to assume they may have been replacement tires on other Ford light trucks.

NHTSA's "initial determination may cause concern and confusion among drivers of those pickup trucks with these same tires," according to the company.

NHTSA's Rae Tyson says the agency will close the Wilderness AT and ATX investigation shortly. However, its investigation into certain Firestone Steeltex light truck tires is ongoing.

"We do not agree with NHTSA's findings," says BFS Chairman, CEO and President John Lampe. "Our testing and science show our tires perform extremely well. However, we have decided that it is in the best interest of our company, our employees, our dealers and our customers if we replace the limited number of tires in question and close this chapter in the company's history."

Tires subject to the replacement program are the tire sizes with DOT numbers ending in "4," "5," "6" or "7." Also included are DOT numbers shown as "018" through "188."

Although NHTSA is calling the replacement program a "recall," it is not; certain regulatory rules must be followed when the tires are being recalled. BFS' voluntary recall of more than six million tires in August 2000 fit into that category.

BFS estimates there are 885,000 tires still in the field. Some 768,000 of those tires are on Ford SUVs.

The tires were manufactured at BFS' Wilson, N.C., and Joliette, Quebec, facilities.

On July 19, NHTSA asked BFS to expand its initial August 2000 recall without revealing details of its tire analysis. BFS refused, and NHTSA said it would issue an initial defect decision in an attempt to force BFS to comply with its wishes. BFS said it would consider legal action if that happened.

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