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Burden of Proof

Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Head to Capitol Hill

Aired September 6, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford head to Capitol Hill. Congress wants answers about fatal accidents and faulty tires.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: We're here this morning because, in July of 1998, a State Farm analyst notified NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation of a growing number of incidents of Firestone tire failure mounted on '91 through '95 Ford Explorers, and nothing was done.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: This hearing this morning is not just about the topic of safety, it is also about the topic of honesty. It is about when certain companies knew about defective tires.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI (D), MARYLAND: I am deeply disturbed that something that's a manufactured product did not have the same early warning and alerts that we have for a foe penetrating America's borders or an infectious disease.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

This morning in Washington, executives at Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Company and Ford Motor Company arrived on Capitol Hill. Today's hearings focus on a massive tire recall covering more than 6 million tires. The Senate appropriations subcommittee on transportation wants to know how long the companies knew about a tread separation problem and how long it took to notify the American public.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHELBY: If we're here this morning to hear Ford say that this is solely a tire issue, then this hearing is a waste of a lot of people's time. If we're here this morning to hear NHTSA say that they did their job under the controlling statutes, then I -- this senator is going to be disappointed in the job that they're doing. And if we're here this morning to hear Firestone tell us that there isn't something wrong with these tires, then we've stepped through the looking glass.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: In less than 30 minutes, two House subcommittees will hold joint hearings to consider consumer impact of the tire problems.

And joining us today from Capitol Hill is Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida. And in Louisville, Kentucky, we're joined by tire expert Marvin Bozarth. And here in Washington, Brian Meyers (ph), automobile products trial attorney Tab Turner, and Matt Leggett (ph). And in the back, Amy Ferrar (ph) and Alex Burnett (ph).

Marvin, I want to go right to you. I'm going to ask you the -- I guess $64 question is sort of old style now. Maybe I should ask you the million-dollar question: Why are these -- why is the Bridgestone/Firestone, these tires that were on the Ford Explorer, why are they failing?

MARVIN BOZARTH, TIRE EXPERT: Well, I guess you could say that's the $64,000 question, only it's going to be a lot more than $64,000. But I think that's something that has to be determined. My concern is that apparently NHTSA knew about this in 1998. And so far, all I've heard is a lot of statistics about accidents and nobody has come up with a definite reason for the failures, and that really concerns me.

COSSACK: Well, Marvin, let's sort of play detective, if you will -- tire detective, if you will. Why -- what are the reasons that, as an expert like yourself that you could give? Why would tires fail in the way these tires seem to be failing?

BOZARTH: Well, tires fail for a lot of different reasons. The most common reason is from heat failure. Obviously the heat can be generated for a lot of different reasons. They can run low on air, they can be cut, they can be overloaded, there can even be a design defect that could cause it, the wrong tire and the wrong application. All of those things can generate heat. When the heat becomes severe enough, for a variety of reasons, then the tire elements can no longer stay intact and the tire disintegrates.

COSSACK: But, Marvin, you know, one of the things that we can -- we assume in our detective story here is that all tires are treated the same way on the road; that is, whether it's a different brand of tire, a Michelin tire or a Goodyear tire, they're under the same kind of stress as the Bridgestone tire. You know, why aren't those other tires failing with the same kind of stress put on them as we now see that these tires are?

BOZARTH: Well, all tires fail, Roger. It's just a matter of when it's going to fail. I mean, a tire worn out is considered a failure by most people. But when a tire comes apart, it can be any brand of tire. And subject to the right conditions, a tire can't hold together -- if it gets hot enough.

I understand what you're asking and I'm not sure I can give you the answer to that question. If we're talking about the Explorers, probably 80, 90 percent of those tires are the Firestone tires. If that percentage was some other brand of tire, would those incidents be that high? I can't answer that question. I haven't examined the tire. I guess it's possible, but I'm not sure how we -- we haven't reached that point yet to determine if that scenario was to take place.

You know, it would be kind of embarrassing if we recall all these millions of tires and then a year or two from now we still got the same problem. I think we're getting the cart before the horse. We need to find out why the tires are failing. If it's a defect, fine. And then it needs to be taken care of. But we need to make sure that that is the reason they're failing, if it is.

COSSACK: All right, joining us now from Capitol Hill is Congressman Cliff Stearns.

Congressman Stearns, in a little while you're going to be asking some tough questions. What are the -- what do you want to find out immediately from Bridgestone/Firestone?

REP. CLIFF STEARNS (R), FLORIDA: Well, Roger, I think one of the things we want to know is what did they know and when did they know it. We're a little concerned that State Farm knew about this, these defects, this problem well in advance of the highway traffic safety board of the United States government, and we want to explore the communications and how they came to the understanding so late on this problem.

In my congressional district, there's a 10-year-old girl that died because her SUV, Ford Explorer, overturned and it was because of these tires.

Now, as I understand, because a lot of the accidents and fatalities occurred in the South where the heat is pretty strong, and that might have a bearing on the fact that these tires were perhaps OK in the North where there's cooler temperatures. But in the South, this defect would be -- became more prevalent.

But these are type of questions we want to ask and try to understand; not a blame game, not try to have Ford and Firestone continue to blame each other, but try to get to the bottom of the problem.

COSSACK: Congressman, do you have any reason to believe that Ford or Firestone did anything to, oh, so that -- or to sit on the information what they had a problem with these tires rather than coming forward when they should have?

STEARNS: Well, I understand that Ford recalled a lot of tires in Saudi Arabia early on and I'm curious why they didn't do that also in the United States. I understand most of these tires at Firestone were manufactured in Decatur, Illinois, and I'd like to know why that particular area had the problems and try to get to the bottom of what was the quality control at that particular plant.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next, today's hearings on Capitol Hill: Will they impact you the consumer? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG (D), NEW JERSEY: We know from press accounts that the manufacturers knew of this tire problem well before it came to the attention of the regulators. Indeed, tires were being recalled in other countries, without the knowledge of NHTSA officials. Under current law, there is no requirement for manufacturers to pass along their record of complaints to NHTSA.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: This morning in Washington, a Senate subcommittee began hearings on a massive recall affecting Bridgestone/Firestone tires. At 1:00 p.m. Eastern time, two House subcommittees convene to weigh the impact on the consumer.

Tab, you are a member of a group that has been working to get these tires recalled, and get them off the road. Do you have any evidence, and also you are a lawyer who is handling some lawsuits about these tires, do you have any evidence that could indicate that the Bridgestone/Firestone people and/or Ford knew there was a problem and sat on it.

TAB TURNER, TRIAL ATTORNEY: Absolutely. I mean, I've been handling these case since late 1992, early 1993, cases involving victims, people harmed, people killed as a result of Firestone tread separation resulting in Explorers recovering rolling over. The internal documents clearly showed that not only the reasons, the motives behind the particular design of this tire, but also the gaining knowledge that they began to acquire as early as 1992, 1993.

COSSACK: Be a little more specific for us, 1992, 1993, that's a long time ago. Are you saying that Ford, Bridgestone either knew or should have known they had a problem on their hands then?

TURNER: Absolutely. These companies are the most sophisticated companies in the world. These companies have adjustment records, which tell them what tires are failing, what plants those tires come from, those tires are physically inspected at tire service centers across the country on a monthly base.

Firestone and Ford are trading information on weekly, on a monthly basis relating to the failures out in the field. Absolutely, they can put whatever spin they want to put on it, but the facts show that these companies have known about tread separations involving these tires for years. That's not even including the number of lawsuit that were filed.

COSSACK: Congressman Stearns, you are going to be asking these questions today. Who is going to be your witnesses? And are you going to be asking about when they knew or should have known?

STEARNS: Well, we will be talking to these folks at Ford and Firestone, the CEOs. We are also going to explore the idea, why wasn't all this information provided to NHTSA, and why wasn't the government more up-to-speed on this. Perhaps we need legislation that would require the manufacturers to provide this information to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Board so that they would be up-to- speed on it.

I think some of the intricacies of this whole operation had to be put into perspective, and the fact it appears most of these tires came out of Decatur, Illinois. So we have to understand that it appears some the tires are OK, but the tires that came out of that plant did not have the quality assurance that was necessary.

COSSACK: All right, let me go back now to Marvin.

Marvin, you and I are playing detective on these tires, we got a new fact to add in, that most of them, or many of them at least, came out of one plant. Does that add anything to our mix to figure out what happened here, or what might have gone wrong?

BOZARTH: Well, it goes back to what I was saying originally. Obviously, it does, if you can figure out why the tires failed. But until we figure out what made the tires fail, it's kind of hard to point the blame at a particular plant. It may not have anything to do with that plant, it may have all to do with the operation of the tire.

Let me give you an example. I've got PT/35/15s on my Dodge Dakota, they are retreads, and I run them at 35 pounds air because that is the maximum recommended inflation pressure. I got 50,000 miles on them. I have run them in temperatures up to 102 degrees, with no problem.

I think we are missing something here in the fact that this 26 PSI is a factor that needs to be looked to see if it has impact on this tire.

Let me finish something here, Ford recommends 30 pounds plus on exactly the same tire on another vehicle they manufacturer. So why did they run 26 on a vehicle that weighs more than the Ranger, for example? Those questions need to be answered.

COSSACK: Let me them ask you that question. Why would they recommend running these particular tires at such a low pressure? Now, you know that running it at a low pressure, one of the things it does is makes the ride a little smoother. Could that be the fact that they were concerned about making these cars appear to run smoother?

BOZARTH: Well, obviously, I've heard that. I've heard that from people that work at Ford, that they were told that was the reason that the tires were let down to 26 was to improve the ride because they had complaints about ride. But also in the local newspaper here, the chief engineer at Ford stated that the vehicle would not pass the rollover test at 30 pounds or more. So they had to drop them to 26. I'm not sure which one -- maybe both apply. I don't know.

COSSACK: And Marvin, if you run them at 26, do the tires get hotter? BOZARTH: Oh, absolutely. You know, let me give you another scenario, you can say you are running at 26. Most people don't check the air in their tires once a year, if you are lucky. You get out there and you are down to 18 pounds. You are probably not going to know it driving back and forth to work, you might drive the vehicle 70,000 miles and not have a problem, until you load it up with some people and luggage, put it on the highway at 70 miles an hour, the tire is going to fail.

COSSACK: Congressman, are you going to be asking that question, why suddenly, or why they were asking consumers to run these tires at a lower pressure than they were other vehicles, and other tires of the same kind?

STEARNS: Yes, Roger, that will be one of the questions. Perhaps another anomaly is, in Venezuela, they had not only the Ford Explorer had a lot of problem, but also light trucks. The samples that were given to the country of Venezuela that we used in the Ford Explorers and also light trucks different than the ones that were in other parts of South America.

We have the locality problem, and in Venezuela, of course, their government is looking at suing Ford and suing also Firestone. But Ford, in '98, took the information from Venezuela and gave it to Firestone and asked them to analyze and look at it.

So I want to know why Firestone, back in '98, didn't take that information. It was coming from Venezuela and try to do some analysis, and come up with answers much like State Farm did.

COSSACK: Congressman, what do you expect the answer will be?

STEARNS: Well, I think these folks will be under oath, and this is a possibility of very serious litigation in the courts, as pointed out earlier, but it is also a possibility of perjury. So I think the answers they are going to give will have to be accurate, have to be honest, but perhaps some of these executives just don't know, but we will continue to pursue this.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. Up next, how will these events affect the manufacturing of automobile products? and should you be concerned no matter what tires you have on your car? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Supreme Court Justice Paul Stevens rejected what emergency request by the U.S. Olympic Committee?

A: To keep Greco-Roman wrestler Matt Lindland off the U.S. team. Lindland protested his defeat at the Olympic Trials in June, and was granted a rematch via arbitration. Even though he won the second match 8-0, it took a federal judge to add his name to the roster.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSSACK: The recall of Firestone products affected more than 6 million tires. But its impact could be far reaching on a number of auto products.

Tab, should I be concerned about other tires, or should we be concern about other tires, other than the ones that are in question?

TURNER: Well, as a general proposition, tires are going to fail from time to time, due to manufacturing defects. What we've got to focus people on right now is the confusion that centers around whether these tires are failing because of a manufacturing defect, or whether they are failing because of a defect in the design of these tires.

The answer to your direct question is, no, you shouldn't be concerned about your tires unless you have one of these Firestone either ATX, ATX II or Wilderness AT, or in some cases the Wilderness HT, because those tires appear to be having a similar type problem. So if you have got those kinds of tires, absolutely, you will be concerned.

COSSACK: Earlier we spoke somewhat about the fact that there was a recommendation that these tires be utilized, or used at a lower tire pressure than others. You had a chance to review the documents. Why was that recommendation made?

TURNER: Look, they started developing the Explorer back in 1987. Testing was undertaken in '87, '88 and '89. Ford has taken the position recently, as far back now as three weeks ago, that they dropped the air pressure from 35 pounds to 26 pounds for ride quality, for the smooth ride.

We specifically released the internality documents to the "Washington Post" to demonstrate that Ford's own internal documents show that the only reason that they dropped the air pressure from 35 to 26 was because they could not keep the wheels of the Explorer on the ground in the J-turn maneuver, which is one of the rollover maneuvers.

They had an opportunity to fix the car, instead of fixing the car, due to timing and cost reasons, they just simply deflated the air in the tires just a little bit so that they could keep it on the ground.

COSSACK: And when the air is deflated in the tires, more square area of the tire is on the ground, and that gives it that smoother ride, and more of the tire is on the ground, isn't that right?

TURNER: Well, it is actually more complicate than that. When you decrease the air in the tire, that alters the natural under steer of the vehicle, which, in other words, in layman's terms, it tries to keep, it helps keep the vehicle from getting sideways in a turn. The last thing you want in a vehicle that is very narrow and very tall is for the vehicle to get sideways. Once it gets sideways, it is going to flip over.

What you are trying to do is keep the nose plowing into the ground, as opposed to the back end swinging around.

COSSACK: Congressman, is legislation going to be -- do you see legislation coming out of these hearings?

STEARNS: I suspect that there might be, Roger. Another point is that almost, over two years ago, State Farm notified the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration about this information, and they did not do anything with it.

A good question would be: Do they have other information on other tires presently on their record that would be indicate that there is defects on other tires? So I think, to your original question is, are there other tires involved? Obviously, we don't think so. But let's ask them today, and get to the bottom of what their record keeping looks like.

COSSACK: Congressman, why would it be that State Farm, an insurance company, is informing the National Highway and Transportation Safety Board and not the manufacturers of the tire or Ford?

STEARNS: Good question. Because the mission of this administration board is to protect Americans, and to make sure that no fatalities occur. So their direct mission is that, and yet they had to be notified by an insurance company, a private insurance company. When this information was available, they weren't collecting it. So perhaps we need to instruct the automobile manufacturers and the tire manufacturers to notify mandatorily this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

COSSACK: And the legislation is not in place now, where they do have to, as I understand it, where they do have to inform NHTSA, or the National Highway Traffic Safety administration of this kind of information.

STEARNS: But the administration has access and can collect this information themselves, and that's the purpose of the whole organization, the whole federal bureaucracy that this is is supposed to be doing that. So it is little disappointing that they haven't picked up on this two years ago, when State Farm notified them by an e-mail.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Stay tuned for live coverage of congressional hearings on the tire recall. That's next on CNN.

And weigh in on the Firestone and Ford tire controversy today on "TALKBACK LIVE." That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Tomorrow on BURDEN OF PROOF: Does the government have the power to incarcerate a pregnant woman with the intention of protecting an unborn child? and can authorities dictate the separation of conjoined twins against the parents' will? That's tomorrow, on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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