WASHINGTON -- Ford Motor Co. should have notified the federal government when it began to replace Firestone tires on sport utility vehicles in foreign countries last year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said Thursday.
In his sharpest remarks on the tire safety controversy that has tarnished the reputations of two major companies and his own department's consumer watchdogs, Slater also said he is considering asking Congress to mandate that manufacturers report problems earlier.
Slater's comments came as two congressional committees are proceeding with plans for hearings into how the companies and the government handled the tire safety problem.
The Senate Commerce Committee, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced it will hold hearings on Sept. 6. And the House Commerce Committee said it is sending investigators to Ford's headquarters in preparation for its own hearings. House and Senate staffers have said the panels want to determine whether the system for handling auto safety problems needs to be fixed.
Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires on Aug. 9, in response to complaints that the tire treads were coming off, often while consumers were driving at highway speeds. Most of the tires were installed as factory equipment on the popular Ford Explorer SUV.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said it is also scrutinizing other Firestone models to see if there is a problem, leaving open the possibility of further recalls.
A Los Angeles Times analysis of consumer complaints to the government found that failures of the tires have been blamed for at least 166 accidents and 54 deaths. Of the fatal accidents, 89 percent involved a rollover crash after drivers lost control of their vehicles as a result of tire failures.
Federal law now requires companies to notify NHTSA regulators if they believe they have discovered a product defect. But there is no notification requirement if companies conclude their equipment is not at fault, although complaints and lawsuits may be piling up.
"I think there is a question about timing," Slater told reporters at a question-and-answer session in his office. "We should have known about the recalls in other countries."
Asked if companies should be required to automatically report lawsuits and consumer complaints, he responded: "We are considering that -- yes."
Ford began replacing Firestone tires on Explorers in 10 Middle East countries last fall. Recalls followed in Malaysia, Thailand and Venezuela this year. But it did not notify U.S. regulators. The company contends it was under no obligation to do so.
Ford Vice President Jason Vines said the automaker does not deserve to be scolded, but should be credited with finding the problem after it asked Firestone to investigate the performance of its tires in the United States.
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