WASHINGTON -- The first lawsuits alleging some Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. truck tires suddenly lost their tread were filed nearly a decade ago, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn't start investigating until May.
And that was nearly a year after Ford Motor Co. replaced Firestone tires on its vehicles in parts of Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Critics say the case illustrates a fundamental problem with the agency responsible for auto safety: NHTSA largely depends on manufacturers to police themselves and notify it when problems are uncovered.
"This has been going on for some number of years and the company (Firestone) never notified the agency, and that to me suggests a failure in the agency's program," said Joan Claybrook, president of watchdog group Public Citizen and a former director of NHTSA.
Some safety experts say NHTSA isn't to blame, but that Congress needs to grant the agency greater authority.
"NHTSA's doing as good a job as the authority and the weak teeth that they have," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. "They can only do what Congress gives them the authority to do."
The Center for Auto Safety is suing Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford to expand the recall to all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness brand tires. Ditlow said the group filed suit this week because it believed it could force a wider recall faster than NHTSA, which often takes several months to complete an investigation.
Bridgestone/Firestone announced a "voluntary" U.S. recall on Aug. 9 of 6.5 million P235/75R15 size Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, often found on Ford Explorers. The recall came three months after NHTSA opened the investigation.
Bridgestone/Firestone began airing a television commercial this weekend to inform the public about the recall.
NHTSA is monitoring the recall and continuing its investigation into 62 deaths and more than 100 injuries that occurred in accidents where the Firestone tires may have been a factor.
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