Tire-failure saga turns corner

Ford replacement plan to end; Texas woman copes with paralysis
March 29, 2002
BY ALEJANDRO BODIPO-MEMBA

Donna Bailey may never go rock climbing again, but she plans to live life to the fullest.

Two years ago, she was left paralyzed after one of the Firestone tires on a 1997 Ford Explorer separated, causing the truck to flip over several times.

A chapter in the 20-month-old Ford-Firestone battle comes to a close Sunday when Ford Motor Co. ends a voluntary tire replacment program. Bailey's struggle will continue for a lifetime.

Though she will likely remain in an electric wheelchair and use a ventilator for the rest of her life, Bailey is upbeat about her future.

"I'm learning to live with all of this. I just hope that the lesson they learn is that people's lives are more important than money, regardless of the product."

Bailey's is one of the many tragic incidents that have surrounded the corporate tug-of-war between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. over defective tires and the alleged propensity of older versions of the Explorer sport-utility vehicle to roll over.

After months of acrimonious public finger-pointing and the severing of a century-old business relationship that shook the foundations of both corporate giants, Ford is slated to end its voluntary program to replace13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires.

The Ford program is one of three replacement or recall programs involving Firestone tires during the last two years.

The first began on Aug. 9, 2000, at the behest of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Bridgestone/Firestone agreed to recall 14.4 million Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX II tires -- 6.5 million of which were believed to be on the road.

Many of those were original equipment on Ford Explorers. That recall was completed last Aug. 29, according to Bridgestone/Firestone officials.

Last May, after Ford received data from Firestone that substantiated claims that the tires were defective, the world's second-largest automaker began its own program to remove 13 million Firestones from its vehicles -- at a cost of $3 billion. Those tires weren't part of the original NHTSA recall.

Ford said it has replaced about 82 percent of the 13 million tires. The program covers all 15-inch, 16-inch and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires. Most were found on Explorers, Expeditions, Rangers and some F150 pickups.

DuringFord's replacement program last October, NHTSA ordered Firestone to recall an additional 3.5 million tires. Again, many of the tires in question had been original equipment on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles.

The second recall involved Wilderness AT tires that were mounted on sport-utility vehicles before May 1998 and that were supplied to Ford as original equipment or sold as replacement tires.

According to NHTSA's official count, 271 traffic deaths and more than 800 injuries have been linked to faulty Firestone tires being mounted on Explorers. But it is unclear exactly how many lives were lost as a result of bad Firestone tires and tread separations.

"Those are the last figures available on the amount of deaths and injuries related to the Firestone tire recall," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA. "But is it possible there were more? The answer to that is 'Yes.' "

Congress steps in
In response to the Ford-Firestone imbroglio, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, which was signed into law Nov. 1, 2000, by President Bill Clinton.

The TREAD Act requires NHTSA to monitor Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone reports on personal-injury claims and property damage due to tire-manufacturing flaws.

It requires that the administration issue new tire rules, including a requirement that automakers report potential tire defects to NHTSA even before a vehicle hits the road.

NHTSA can now fine automakers as much as $15 million -- up from $1 million -- for failing to report defect information to NHTSA in a timely manner; require that a tire-pressure monitoring system become standard equipment starting with 2004 model vehicles, and develop a dynamic test for determining a vehicle's propensity to roll over in accidents by this November.

The federal agency is also getting $9 million in additional funding for the 2003 fiscal year, starting in October.

"The early-warning provisions of the TREAD Act will help NHTSA to do its job better," Tyson said. "Now we will have information from the manufacturers that will help us. The Congress has also helped with the budgeting issues. We now have additional funds to try to better cope with the tremendous volume of information under the provisions of the TREAD Act."

Ford, Firestone try to rebound
Ford, which endured harsh public criticism for its handling of the situation, is trying to rebuild its image with consumers. A recent NHTSA study found that the best-selling Explorer was no more or less prone to roll over after a tire failed than any other sport-utility vehicle on the road.

Nonetheless, the Dearborn-based automaker has made some changes to the Explorer since the recall, including developing an early-warning system for the vehicle that improves Ford's ability to detect potential safety issues.

Company officials say it is unfortunate that people were hurt in accidents involving their product, but that Ford stands by the safety of the Explorer.

"I think that" the Ford/Firestone situation "reconfirmed our commitment to making sure that we have the best product safety in our high-volume vehicles," said Ken Zino, a spokesman for Ford. "The health and safety of our employees and our customers is paramount to us." Officials at Firestone have taken a huge public relations hit but they are determined to salvage its brand image.

"Our goal is to put the issues of the recall behind us," said Kristine Karbowiak, spokeswoman for Bridgestone/Firestone. "It has been challenging because of the public scrutiny, and the economy hasn't been very strong. But we're focused on making positive steps to rebuild the company and the Firestone brand."

Lessons learned
The unforeseen legacy of the Ford/Firestone tragedy was the creation of fissures between Ford and Firestone.

"For the first time, there was a chink in the armor of the auto industry in that the two companies within the industry began pointing fingers at each other publicly and the consumer was caught in the middle," said Tab Turner, an Arkansas trial attorney who represented Bailey in her suit against the firms.

Both corporations have settled more than 700 tread separation and rollover cases since Bailey's lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in January 2001.

The lessons learned from the product-liability scandal for Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone and the accident victims are numerous.

"There is now a public perception that the auto companies and the government need watching," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group. "You can't necessarily trust them to do the right thing."

Achieving dreams
But perhaps the biggest lesson can be learned from the most famous accident victim in the Ford-Firestone case is that courage matters.

A lot of the attention associated with being the poster child for the Ford and Firestone situation has subsided in recent months. But Bailey said she still enjoys talking about overcoming obstacles and achieving dreams. The 45-year-old mother of two teenagers -- Jeremiah is 16 and Cassie is 19 -- Bailey remains active with her youth initiatives in southwest Texas. She works with the Big City Mountaineers, an outdoor counseling group for troubled youth. She has established several educational scholarships for so-called at-risk young people.

"When you feel like you're doing something you were born to do and found the thing that gives you the most joy, it's like leaving a legacy and making a difference for other people," she said. "I hope that through all the stuff I went through -- the long period of grieving and depression -- that families will be inspired to go on."

Bailey spends her days going to physical therapy, surfing the Internet and supervising the construction of her new home. The home is to be equipped with a variety of ramps, pulley systems and an elevator. It will overlook Nueces Bay.

"I'm very fortunate. I have a clear mind, I'm able to think and do more with my mind than anything I thought I could do with my body," she said. "But I still hope to rock-climb one day. I even keep my climbing harness at the end of my bed as sort of my motivation."