CHICAGO -- Consumer safety advocates assailed Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Wednesday, saying the tire maker's replacement of 200,000 tires suspected of being prone to tread failures falls far short of what is needed to protect motorists.
Goodyear announced last week that it will replace some 200,000 heavy-duty tires sold mainly on 15-passenger vans and ambulances in the wake of a federal investigation into accidents caused by tread separations that left at least 11 people dead.
The tire maker is replacing 16-inch tires known as Load Range E made from 1996-2000, after which Goodyear made a design change to strengthen the tires.
"Incredibly, the same defective tires are not being recalled if they are installed on vehicles other than 15-passenger vans," said Lee Jones, executive director of Safetyforum.com, a safety advocacy group.
Jones also criticized Goodyear for replacing the tires rather than issuing a formal recall. "By denying that a problem exists, they are soft-pedaling the issue, perhaps in anticipation that it will somehow magically vanish," she said.
Goodyear has produced some 28 million Load Range E tires since the early 1990s, and maintains that the number of tires being replaced is consistent with the problems that have arisen. "When you look at the numbers related to all the Load Range E tires, there's not a safety concern," Goodyear spokesman Chuck Sinclair said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that Load Range E tires have been involved in 44 injury accidents and 18 fatalities. Sinclair said there have been 15 injury accidents and 11 deaths involving 15-passenger vans and the tires.
"This is a pretty small segment of the overall Load Range E tires. In the remaining Load Range E tires there's not an issue," Sinclair said. "I don't see how they can have safety concerns."
Numerous complaints and lawsuits made Goodyear aware of tread separation problems in 1995, Strategicsafety.com, another consumer advocacy group, noted in a statement. "Goodyear is now feeling the heat as their Wrangler LT tires are under scrutiny for tread separations problems similar to Firestone."
In August 2000, tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. recalled 6.5 million tires that showed a tendency to lose their treads at high speeds, and Ford Motor Co. said last May that it would replace 13 million more Firestones whose treads could peel off. The recall and replacement program cost Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford billions of dollars.
Goodyear says analysis shows the Load Range E tires lost their treads because of factors unrelated to their design: underinflation, overloading and damage from punctures and impacts.
"The company refuses to accept responsibility and assesses blame for the tread separation (on) ... any reason except the correct one -- the tires were inherently defective," said Jones of Safetyforum.com.
Sinclair said Goodyear believes the tires' overall performance attests to their reliability. "The fact that more fatalities and lawsuits have not surfaced despite the publicity is a testament to the quality of the tires," Sinclair said.
With the announcement of the replacement program, NHTSA agreed to close its investigation into Load Range E tires that it began in November 2000. While that practice is common in defect investigations, safety advocates were critical.
"When safety is being compromised and lives are threatened through the use of defective products, there is no room for secrets or aborted investigations or cover-ups," Jones said.
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