WASHINGTON -- Firestone's chief executive formally apologized to Congress Wednesday for tire failures that have killed scores of people, but the company ran into withering criticism for withholding information that might have saved lives.
At the first joint public appearance of the key players in the Firestone drama, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono and his counterpart at Ford, Jac Nasser, provided a demonstration of high-stakes damage control by two global corporations.
"I come before you to apologize to you, the American people and especially to the families who have lost loved ones in these terrible rollover accidents," Ono said. "I also come to accept full and personal responsibility ... for the events that led to this hearing."
But the two executives failed to satisfy their questioners. One senator said the Firestone and Ford explanations "strain credulity." Many lawmakers said they have concluded that the nation's warning system for alerting consumers to auto safety problems, which hinges on cooperation between manufacturers and federal regulators, is broken and in need of an overhaul.
Not since the 1996 Valujet crash in Florida has an industry -- and the federal regulators who monitor it -- come under such intense scrutiny.
"We have to ask ourselves why we are in this mess and what can we do to make sure this never happens again," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., who chaired the House hearing.
The hearing marked the first attempt by Congress to grapple with the policy implications of the Firestone recall. Lawmakers said reforms could range from criminal penalties for auto companies that fail to report problems, to upgrading 30-year-old tire safety standards that predate radials, to launching a major federal effort to reduce the risk of rollover crashes for sport utility vehicles. Sorting out the ideas and enacting some of them into law could take months.
Last month, Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires used mainly on Ford Explorers. The companies had known of problems for several years, but did not alert federal safety agencies. Even as Ford was recalling tires last year on vehicles sold overseas, American consumers were being killed in crashes attributed to failures of the same tire models.
Even pro-business Republicans were chagrined. "It's obvious to me there was a concealment of information that should have been brought out to the public," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who is regarded as an ally of the auto industry in battles with federal regulators.
Safety officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a stern tongue-lashing for ignoring repeated efforts by State Farm Insurance to warn them of problems as early as 1998. "The federal government's highway safety watchdog apparently was asleep," said House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley, R-Va.
The agency began an inquiry in May after television station KHOU in Houston reported on a number of Explorer rollover crashes linked by the common denominator of a Firestone tire that had lost its treads.
Samuel Boyden, a safety research specialist with State Farm, said in a statement he had provided NHTSA with more than 70 tire failure cases dating back to 1996. Boyden said he e-mailed the first report in 1998, and followed up in two telephone conversations the next year.
Newly appointed NHTSA Administrator Susan Bailey said her agency failed to follow up on the State Farm alert because the problem was not recognized as a major one. She said the agency has no record of Boyden's telephone updates in 1999.
For Ono and Nasser, the congressional appearance was a command performance. When Nasser initially indicated last week that he would send subordinates to answer lawmakers' questions, a sharp rebuke from Tauzin prompted him to quickly change his mind.
On Wednesday, Nasser sought to distance Ford from what he termed a "a tire issue, not a vehicle issue." Explorers with Goodyear tires have not experienced similar problems, he said.
"I am deeply troubled by the fact that there are defective tires on some of our vehicles," Nasser said in a statement. "Firestone manufactured and warranted these tires." He said the problem was uncovered only because Ford kept probing Firestone's data.
Ono, 63, known as a courtly Japanese executive who values privacy, spoke in dignified tones as he struggled with some of his English pronunciations. "I have never made a public appearance like this before," he told senators, "so I am more than a little nervous."
Ono said Firestone has not yet been able to identify the fundamental cause of the tire failures. He said the company will retain an independent expert to evaluate all issues arising from the recall.
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