Firestone and Ford tire controversy

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The Firestone and Ford tire controversy was a period of unusually high failures of P235/75R15 ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires installed on the Ford Explorer and other related vehicles.

The tire failures are linked to 271 fatalities and over eight hundred injuries in the United States with more injuries and fatalities occurring internationally,[1][2] it led Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Company to recall and replace 23 million tires, it cut the market value of Bridgestone/Firestone in half,[3] Firestone closed the Decatur, Illinois factory where the tires were manufactured, several executives in Bridgestone and Ford resigned or were fired, it led Congress to pass the TREAD Act,[4] and it brought an end to the nearly 100 year corporate relationship between Ford Motor Company and Firestone.

Problem detection[edit]

As early as 1996 personal injury lawyers were aware of accidents, injuries and fatalities caused by the tread of Firestone tires separating from the tire at high speeds.[5] Lawyers and traffic safety researchers decided not to contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) because they lacked confidence in the agency and feared that an investigation might conclude that there were no defects thereby compromising existing personal injury lawsuits. All but 13 of the 271 fatalities from these tires took place after 1996.[5]

In 1996 the State of Arizona told Firestone that the tread on its tires were separating in high temperatures.[6] Firestone sent several engineers to inspect the tires and concluded that normal passenger tires were being used in heavy conditions, on dirt roads, off road, and under heavy loads. Firestone replaced those tire with heavier duty tires.[6]

Internal Firestone documents showed a rise in injury claims for ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires as early as 1997.[7]

In July 1998 Samuel Boyden, a researcher for State Farm Insurance, received a call from a claims handler asking for information about tread separation in Firestone tires. Boyden found 21 cases of accidents caused by tread separation and forwarded the information to the NHTSA.[8] In 1999 he found an additional 30 cases and forwarded that information to the NHTSA.[9]

Sean Kane, a researcher at Strategic Safety Consulting, found documents showing that Ford had been replacing Firestone tires in Venezuela starting in 1998 where 46 deaths had occurred.[10][11] Firestone was aware of tire defects in Venezuela as early as 1999.[12]

A Ford dealer in Saudi Arabia noticed high failure rates of Firestone tires in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait starting in 1997 and in July 1999 began replacing Firestone tires on unsold Ford Explorers and to offer a 75% discount for replacement tires when customers came in for maintenance.[13] Ford and Firestone began testing tires in late 1997 or 1998 and began a limited recall in the Middle East, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Thailand in 1999 and the spring of 2000 but did not notify the NHTSA.[14]

On February 7, 2000 KHOU-TV in Houston Texas ran a 9 minute story about high speed Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers that led to 30 deaths.[11][15] KHOU was overwhelmed by phone calls from concerned citizens and started directing callers to contact the NHTSA.

Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director for the Centre for Auto Safety, stated before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that, "Emerging Information shows that both Ford and Firestone had early knowledge of tread separation in Firestone Tires fitted to Ford Explorer vehicles but at no point informed the NHTSA of their findings"[16].

Firestone had more information about tire failures than Ford did because of warranty claims, but Firestone never acted on this information because it always blamed consumers for not maintaining their tires correctly or operating their vehicles in extreme environments, leading to these failures.[17] When either Ford or the NHTSA looked into concerns about tire failures or rollovers they always consulted consumer complaints to the NHTSA's toll-free hotline. The consumer complaints didn't reflect the size of the problem because attorneys and their clients had almost completely stopped using the hotline to report tire failures or other complaints.[17]

Investigation and Possible Causes[edit]

Cumulative failure rates of Firestone tires manufactured at different plants.

On March 6, 2000 the NHTSA began a preliminary inquiry[17] and on May 2, the NHTSA began an investigation (PE00-020)[2] concerning the high incidence of tire failures and accidents of Ford Explorers and other light trucks and SUV's fitted with Firestone Radial ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness tires.[2] On August 9 Firestone recalled all ATX and ATX II tires and all Wilderness AT tires manufactured in Decatur, IL. On August 31, 2000 the Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) upgraded the investigation to an Engineering Analysis (EA00-023) to determine whether Firestone's recall covered all the defective tires.[2]

Ford and Firestone both issued root cause analyses to the NHTSA.[2] Firestone argued that vehicle weight, tire design, low recommended inflation pressure, and lower tire adhesion for tires manufactured at the Decatur, IL factory contributed to the tire failures. Ford argued that the tire design led to higher operating temperatures compared to similar tires manufactured by Goodyear and that differences in manufacturing at Decatur led to weaker tires that were more prone to failure. Ford also argued that the size of the wedge, a strip of rubber between the first and second belts, is smaller in Firestone tires than Michelin tires making them weaker than comparable Michelin tires.

Publicly Firestone argued that Ford's recommended 26 psi inflation pressure was too low and should have been 30 psi.[7] In addition Firestone argued that the Explorer was abnormally dangerous and prone to rollovers in the event of a tire failure, leading to more injuries and fatalities. In the words of Firestone CEO John Lampe, "When a driver of a vehicle has something happen such as a tread separation, they should be able to pull over not rollover."[18]

Ford argued that the Explorer was no more dangerous than any other SUV[19] and that the accident rate for Explorers with Goodyear tires was far lower than for Explorers with Firestone tires.[20] Ford also argued that there was something wrong with the design of Firestone tires and with the manufacturing of those tires at the Decatur, IL factory.

Some outside observers have speculated about the blame worthiness of both parties;[14] Firestone's tires being prone to tread separation and failure, and the Explorer being especially prone to rolling over if a tire fails at speed compared to other vehicles.[21]

Ford Explorer[edit]

The Ford Explorer was first offered for sale in March 1990.[22] The Explorer was originally designed by taking an SUV cabin and attaching it to a Ford Ranger undercarriage. This cut the cost of producing the new Explorer because Ford could use existing facilities, parts, and robots and wouldn't have to design everything from scratch.[23] This created problems though. Because the Explorer was taller like a pickup truck, it had a higher center of gravity and was more likely to roll over in the event of accident. It was also more likely to sway during sharp turns because it used the same leaf spring suspension that is found on the Ranger.[23] The likelihood of a crash and likelihood of injuries and fatalities from a crash were greater in an SUV experiencing a tread separation than on a pickup truck.[2]

Ford came up with three options for correcting this problem; use shorter suspension springs to lower the vehicle half an inch in the front and 1 inch in the back, lower the tire pressure to give the Explorer a more car-like ride, or widen the wheel base by two inches which would involve a substantial redesign.[23] After the Explorer rolled over in company tests prior to production Ford decided to lower the suspension and remove air from the tires to 26 psi compared to 35 psi for the same tires on the Ranger.[14][24] They did not widen the wheel base. One consequence of lowering the tire pressure is increased tire temperatures which could lead to a tire failure.[25] Firestone warrantied these tires at 26 psi for 11 years.[26]

The first generation Explorer had one of the lowest fuel economy ratings for any SUV available in the United States, this was partially due to Ford's recommended tire pressure. To fix the problem Ford reduced the amount of material in the roof of the Explorer for the second generation that went on sale beginning in 1995. The lighter roof was so weak that it would collapse under the weight of an overturned Explorer if the windshield were smashed in, a condition that often happened in rollover accidents.[27] In addition Ford replaced the Twin I-Beam suspension with a lighter weight short and long-arm suspension, but didn't lower the engine. This had the effect of raising the Explorer's center of gravity making it more prone to rolling in an accident or sharp turn.[28]

After Ford Motor Company voluntarily recalled 13 million Firestone tires on May 21, 2001, Firestone requested that the NHTSA investigate the handling and safety of Ford Explorers following a tread separation. Firestone argued that the Explorer is poorly designed and exhibits dangerous oversteer in the foreseeable event that a tire fails while driving. Firestone hired a consulting engineer to analyze the performance of the Ford Explorer and other SUV's during a tread separation, this report showed that the Explorer had a greater tendency to oversteer following a tread separation than other SUV's.[29] The NHTSA examined this report as well as real-world accident data and data provided by Ford concerning the design of the Explorer and denied Firestone's request. The NHTSA stated that "[t]he many crashes following tread separations of tires on these vehicles that are documented in the Firestone claims database and that have been reported to ODI by consumers and others demonstrate that such a tire failure can lead to loss of control, particularly when it is a rear tire that fails and the vehicle is being driven at high speed. However, the fact that a vehicle exhibits linear range oversteer characteristics following a rear tire tread separation does not, in itself, indicate that the vehicle contains a safety-related defect. Moreover, the data available to ODI does not indicate that Explorers... are more likely to exhibit linear range oversteer characteristics following a rear tire tread separation than many of their peers."[29]

The Explorer was redesigned for the 2002 model year. The tire pressure was raised to 30 psi, it was widened by 2.5 inches, the suspension was lowered, and independent rear suspension and electronic stability control were added.[23][30]

Firestone Tires[edit]

Diagram Showing Steel Belts, Belt Wedge, and Design of Radial Tire
Cross section of a Firestone P235/75R15 Wilderness AT tire showing belt separation.
Tire Tread Separation of a Firestone P235/75R15 Wilderness AT tire

Tread Separation[edit]

The failures all involved tread separation[31][32] where the tire tread peeled off leading the tire to disintegrate.[33] Tread separation, due to the interaction of steel and rubber tire elements, has been a challenge in radial tire design since their development by Michelin in 1946.

The failure of the subject tires "begin as belt-edge separation at the edge of the second belt. This is the area of highest strain in a steel belted radial tire, primarily due to the structural discontinuity created by the abrupt change in modulus from steel to rubber."[2] Once a tread separation begins it can grow along the circumference of the tire or laterally across the width of the tire leading to cracks that grow between the belts. As separation progressed it could grow to form large crescent shaped areas along one or both sides of the tire. If those areas grew large enough they could separate catastrophically, especially at high speeds where the separation was aided by the centrifugal force of the spinning tire.[2]

While a tread is separating from a tire the vehicle will pull towards the side of the vehicle with the failed tire. The longer it takes the tread to separate the more the vehicle pulls in that direction. Once the tread separation completes the vehicle ceases to pull in any direction. While the tread is separating the vehicle will oversteer while the tread-separating tire is on the outside of a turn.[34]

In 2000 Firestone added a nylon cap to reduce the problem of tread separation in all of its tire models installed on SUV's.[35]


There were several primary causes of the tread separations; tire age, manufacturing facility, operating temperature, and vehicle weight.[36]

In court cases retired Firestone workers testified that workers had to inspect as many as 100 tires per hour which they believed was far too many tires to do an adequate job. They also testified that they were told to use benzene on tire adhesives that had lost its tack from sitting too long.[13] Benzene can damage the materials in a tire[disputed ].[13]

United Rubber Workers Strike[edit]

The tires that failed were primarily manufactured at Firestone’s Decatur, Illinois factory[37] during a time of labor unrest and a strike against Firestone carried out by the United Rubber Workers (URW) and the United Steel Workers (USW).[1][3][38]

In January 1994 Firestone and the URW entered into new contract negotiations with Firestone demanding considerable concessions from the union. These concessions included switching from an 8 hour workday to 12 hour alternating shifts so the factory could remain in operation 24 hours a day, a pay cut by 30 percent for new hires, a seven day workweek instead of five days, hourly workers would contribute to their healthcare plan, a switch from a piece-rate system to a performance based system, and senior workers were to lose two weeks of vacation time.[39]

By April 1994 the existing labor contract ended and workers continued to work at the factory until the URW called a general strike in July at Decatur and four other Firestone facilities. Almost immediately Firestone began hiring replacement workers at all their facilities and by January 1995 Firestone had hired 2,300 replacement workers who were paid thirty percent less. Over time union workers started to cross the picket line and by May 1995 there were 1,048 replacement workers and 371 permanent workers at Decatur. At that time the URW voted to unconditionally end the strike to block Firestone[40] from hiring even more replacement workers and then holding a union decertification election. While the strike ended the labor negotiations continued. In July 1995 the URW had run out of money and was absorbed by the USW.[41] During the time period from May 1995 and December 1996 union workers worked alongside non-union replacements. Labor negotiations between Firestone and the USW continued but many union workers couldn’t return to work because their jobs had been replaced. The union described that time period as "brutal."[3] The USW continued to negotiate specifically trying to get Firestone to allow all union workers to return to their jobs. In December 1996 USW finally reached an agreement and all union workers were allowed to return to work.

Tires with the highest rates of failure were manufactured in the months right before the union went on strike but after labor negotiations had begun and later after union workers began to cross the picket line and work without a contract alongside replacement workers.[3] Other Firestone factories (Joliette, Quebec and Wilson, North Carolina) also produced the same tire models but had far lower failure rates.[3] Failure rates at the Decatur plant before the labor negotiations began, while the replacement workers worked without union workers, and after the labor negotiations ended were comparable to the failure rate of tires manufactured at the Joliette and Wilson plants.[3]

Other studies have found that labor unrest reduces the quality of work by union members[3][42][43][44] suggesting that there should be additional inspections and heightened scrutiny by regulators during strikes.[1]


On August 17, 1999 Ford in Saudi Arabia began replacing Firestone tires on unsold Ford Explorers and to offer steep discounts on replacement tires to customers who returned to Ford dealers for regular maintenance. While this wasn't officially a recall Ford still replaced Firestone tires on 6,800 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers.[14]

In February 2000 Ford began to recall Firestone tires in Malaysia and Thailand.[45]

In May, 2000 Ford recalled 150,000 Firestone tires on Explorers in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.[46] In August 2000 Bridgestone/Firestone issued a recall in Venezuela of 62,000 Venezuelan made Firestone tires.[46] The recall was estimated to cost $6 million.[46]

On August 9, 2000 Firestone issued a recall covering 6.5 million P235/75 R15 Firestone ATX and ATX II tires and P235/75R15 Wilderness AT tires manufactured after 1991 and 1996 respectively. The recall covered all ATX and ATX II tires regardless of which plant they originated from but only covered Wilderness AT tires from Firestone's Decatur plant.[47][48] Firestone had produced 14.4 million tires that were covered by this recall but it was estimated that only 6.5 million remained in service.[2] Wilderness AT tires manufactured in Joliette, Quebec and Wilson, North Carolina were not included in the recall. On August 21, 2000 Ford halted production at three truck assembly plants so that 70,000 tires could be diverted towards the recall effort. P235/75 R15 tires became scarce and Ford authorized dealers to install replacement tires from companies other than Firestone. Both Ford and Firestone looked for replacement tires internationally.

On May 22, 2001 Ford announced a voluntary recall of all Wilderness AT tires of 15, 16, and 17 inches installed on all Ford trucks and SUV's. This covered an additional 13 million Firestone tires and cost Ford $3 billion.[13]

On October 4, 2001 the NHTSA issued a mandatory recall of 3.5 million P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 Wilderness AT tires manufactured prior to May 1998 that were assembled in either the Joliette, Quebec or Wilson, NC factories.[49] This recall removed all remaining Wilderness AT tires that were manufactured prior to May, 1998. The NHTSA concluded that the rubber wedge between the outer edge of the two belts was not thick enough on Wilderness AT tires and not strong enough to resist crack formation and growth.[2] Wilderness AT tires manufactured after May 1998 had a thicker wedge making them more robust.

In November 2013, two recalled Wilderness AT tires were found in Atlanta, Georgia.[50] One of the tires was offered for sale as new at a used tire retail shop.[50]


Injuries and Fatalities[edit]

Two hundred and seventy one people were killed and 823 people were injured in the United States as a result of these failures.[51] The large majority of accidents took place in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida.[52] An additional 46 people were killed in Venezuela.[46]


A large number of lawsuits were filed against both Ford and Firestone. The result of most lawsuits were kept confidential but one attorney estimated that Ford settled 1,500 cases regarding the safety of the Explorer.[53] Ford's own financial statements indicate that it spent $590 million to settle personal injury and class action lawsuits.[53] Firestone set aside $800 million to handle lawsuits related to the recalled tires.[53]

By February 2000, when KHOU in Texas ran a story about tire failures on Ford Explorers, Firestone had recorded 193 personal injury claims, 2,288 property damage claims, and was a defendant in 66 lawsuits.[54] In 2000 Firestone was served with 413 individual lawsuits in state and federal courts. By July 2002 Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone had settled more than 600 cases.[53] By late 2003 Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford had settled 1,300 cases.[53]

In November 2001 Firestone agreed to pay $41.5 million to end state lawsuits against Firestone.[55] In 2003 Firestone settled a class action lawsuit by agreeing to pay $15.5 million for consumer education focusing on tire safety and $19 million in legal fees and $2,500 each to 45 plaintiffs.[56] In 2005 Firestone paid Ford $240 million to settle claims related to the recall.[57]

Ford and Firestone worked to settle cases out of court to avoid punitive damages and were paying between $4 million and $8 million to settle cases involving fatalities and between $12 million to $16 million to settle cases of paralysis.[58]

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that both Ford and Firestone knew of the dangers but did nothing, and that Ford knew that the Explorer was highly prone to rollovers. Firestone argued that Ford's recommended inflation pressure of 26 psi was too low and should have been 30 psi and that the Explorer was an especially dangerous vehicle prone to rollovers.

Congressional Investigation[edit]

Congress began hearings in September 2000 to find out why it took so long for the NHTSA to discover these tire defects and why Ford and Firestone were aware of tire failures as early as 1996 but never reported the information to the NHTSA. The investigation led Congress to pass the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act or TREAD Act on October 11, 2000 which was signed into law on November 1.[59]

Ford/Firestone corporate relations[edit]

Relations between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone deteriorated after the NHTSA began investigating the tire failures in May 2000. Ford first accused Firestone of withholding data that Ford needed to determine which tires might be unsafe. Firestone then accused Ford of withholding safety data concerning the design of the Explorer. After Firestone agreed to the initial recall of 14.4 million tires on August 9, 2000 the NHTSA continued to push Firestone to recall all ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires regardless of where they were manufactured. Ford executives were concerned that the NHTSA might decide that the Wilderness AT tires wouldn't meet future safety standards and decided to recall these tires on their own.[14] Before Ford could publicly announce this decision John T. Lampe (Chairman & CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone) announced on May 21, 2001 in a public letter to Jacques Nasser (Ford Motor Company chief executive) that Bridgestone/Firestone would no longer enter into new contracts with Ford Motor Company, effectively ending a 100-year supply relationship.[60] The letter included accusations that the Ford Explorer was unsafe and called on the NHTSA to investigate design flaws in the SUV.[13] On May 22, 2001, angry that Firestone wouldn't expand the recall, Jacques Nasser at Ford announced a voluntary recall of all Wilderness AT tires that were not subject to the original recall.[14]

Corporate Firings and Resignations[edit]

The chairman and CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone, Masatoshi Ono, resigned in October 2000 and was replaced by John Lampe[61]. In January 2001, the CEO and president of Bridgestone, Yoichiro Kaizaki, resigned and was replaced by Shigeo Watanabe[62]. The bitter public fight between Ford and Firestone was also a contributing factor in Ford's decision to fire Jacques Nasser in November 2001.[63] Nasser was replaced by William Clay Ford Jr, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, and the great-grandson of Harvey Firestone, the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

Firestone's Decatur Plant[edit]

Firestone's Decatur plant was closed in December 2001 and all 1,500 employees were laid off.[64] Firestone cited a decline in consumer demand for Firestone tires and the age of the Decatur plant as the reasons for closing that facility.[65] It is estimated that closing the Decatur plant cost Bridgestone/Firestone $210 million.[65]

Financial Cost[edit]

It is estimated that these tire failures and rollovers cost Bridgestone/Firestone $1.67 billion[66] and Ford Motor Company $530 million. Bridgestone's market price dropped by 50% and the resulting restructuring cost Bridgestone $2 billion. In 2001 Ford recorded a loss of $5.5 billion.[53]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Bradsher, Keith. High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV. PublicAffairs. (2004). ISBN 9781586482039
  • Hearit, Keith Michael. Crisis Management By Apology: Corporate Response to Allegations of Wrongdoing. Routledge. (2006). ISBN 113565025X
  • Luegenbiehl, Heinz and Clancy, Rockwell. Global Engineering Ethics. Butterworth-Heinemann. (2017). Chapter 4. ISBN 0128112190
  • Penenberg, Adam L. Tragic Indifference: One Man's Battle with the Auto Industry over the Dangers of SUVs. Harper Business. (2003). ISBN 978-0-06-009058-6

External links[edit]