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Federal tire investigation underway

WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal safety officials opened an investigation Tuesday into 2.7 million tires that Ford Motor Co. has used on the F150 pickup and as replacements in its recall of Firestone tires.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there have been at least 338 claims of tread separation on the P235/70R16 size of the General Ameri 550 AS tire – the same problem that plagued some Firestone tire lines and led to last summer’s massive recall.

The claims include seven crashes, two of them rollovers, that reportedly caused a total of 17 injuries. No deaths have been reported, the agency said.



NHTSA’s action was triggered by information collected by congressional staffers investigating the safety of Firestone tires.

At a hearing last month, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin announced that some of the tire brands that Ford Motor Co. was using to replace Firestone tires had higher rates of claims for injury and property damage.



He would not name the tires until NHTSA had a chance to review the committee’s analysis. NHTSA refused to identify the other 10 lines that it examined but decided not to investigate.

Tauzin, R-La., said in a statement that ”NHTSA is taking an important step today toward better safeguarding American drivers.”

The Ameri 550 tire is used as original equipment on Ford F150 pickups and was identified by Ford as a replacement for Firestone Wilderness AT tires on the Ranger and 1997 F-series trucks.

Continental Tire North America Inc., which manufactures the General tire brand and is a subsidiary of German automotive supplier Continental AG, did not immediately return calls for comment. But NHTSA said Continental has made several design and production changes to these tires since they were first made in April 1995.

NHTSA said the claims rates for tires made after July 1998 were extremely low, and there have been no injuries attributed to those tires. Ford officials did not immediately return calls for comment, but have said the company is using the newer tires as replacements on its vehicles.

”Nevertheless, to assure that relevant information is not missed, NHTSA’s investigation will consider the safety performance of the entire population of these tires, rather than only those produced prior to those design changes,” NHTSA said in a statement.

Mark Lilly of Lilly’s Tires in South Lake Tahoe isn’t surprised by the government’s concerns about General tires.

“I wouldn’t doubt it. I don’t like the General product,” Lilly said Tuesday. They tend to separate more than others, he added.

Still, Lilly points out that air pressure and heat are significant factors in tire performance.

“Any radial tire is going to blow out if it runs low in air pressure,” Lilly said, adding that “heat is a tire’s worst enemy.”

Ken’s Tire Center’s Manager Bob Elliott essentially agrees when he preaches tire maintenance and good driving habits.

Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said while the General Ameri 550 that NHTSA is investigating had 124.4 tread separation claims per million tires produced, the same size Wilderness AT tire had 17.4 per million. He said none of the six tread separation claims on those tires resulted in injury.

”For many consumers, that can’t be too comforting,” he said.

”Clearly the next step is up to Ford,” Johnson said. ”Company officials said repeatedly that they wanted hard evidence of a potential problem. Well, they’ve got it now.”

NHTSA is wrapping up its yearlong investigation into more than 55 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has already voluntarily recalled 6.5 million of the tires, but NHTSA said it will push for a larger recall.

Bridgestone/Firestone says the tires are safe and it will fight such an order in court.

Ford, concerned about the safety of the Wilderness AT tires, recalled all 13 million of the tires on its vehicles in May at a cost of $2.1 billion. Bridgestone/Firestone cut off its centurylong business partnership with Ford that same week.


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