Originally created 08/11/00

South Carolina scolds Firestone

Bridgestone/Firestone, already under fire for making tires that may be related to accidents involving 80 injuries and 46 deaths, was criticized Thursday for how its is recalling the tires.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon fired off a strongly worded letter Wednesday to Bridgestone/Firestone's chairman, chastizing the company for not putting a higher priority on recalling tires in South Carolina.

He also threatened to sue the company under the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act if the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire manufacturer did not agree by Monday to move South Carolina to the top of the list.

"We won't have any choice," attorney general spokesman Rob McBurney said, while Mr. Condon was on another line with Bridgestone/Firestone representatives. "South Carolinians are not going to avail themselves to a remedy that is not acceptable."

Bridgestone/Firestone said Wednesday it will replace the tires at no charge. But, because there are not enough tires to go around, some customers will have to wait to get them.

Customers in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas will be first to get the replacements, then customers in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee, then customers in the rest of the country.

The company anticipates the recall could take as long as 18 months.

But the attorney general said the company is not replacing tires quickly enough and is unfairly deciding who will get helped first. Everyone should be able to get their replacements at the same time, said Mr. Condon, who sent a letter to the seven states in the second group asking them to join his fight.

"I'm very serious. They need to change their policy," he said.

Mr. Condon said he spoke to a Bridgestone/Firestone executive Thursday, but she made no promises to change the process. The company did not respond to several inquiries from The Augusta Chronicle about the attorney general's letter.

The recalled tires - radial ATXs, radial ATX IIs and some Wilderness ATs - are under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Reports indicate the tires may be related to hundreds of automobile accidents, including 46 fatalities, because the tire tread ripped off when moving at high speeds.

"They peel like a banana," Mr. Condon said.

The replacement priority, Bridgestone/Firestone said, was determined by which states had the most accidents. Of the 270 complaints to the NHTSA about the tires, 80 percent came from the four states first in the lineup. Seventeen percent of the complaints were from the next seven states. The remaining 3 percent came from the rest.

Mr. Condon, however, said a year is too long to wait. The phones are ringing off the hook at his office because residents are concerned about tire safety and want to get their replacements now.

He also contends that because Bridgestone/Firestone suspects a warm climate may have had something to do with the problems, South Carolina's residents may be at risk. Hot asphalt can affect tires - especially underinflated ones - and may have caused the tread to fly off, the company said.

"No pavement in this nation is any hotter than a South Carolina highway in the summertime," Mr. Condon wrote in his letter to the company. "Our state is a tourist mecca this time of year and SUV's abound here. I see no good reason to distinguish South Carolina from other southern states such as Georgia and Tennessee, for example."

Ironically, some of the replacement tires are produced in Aiken. Bridgestone/Firestone said Wednesday it will step up production of the Wilderness AT tires that seem to be safe.

"Why, therefore, treat South Carolina as a second class citizen?" the attorney general wanted to know Thursday.

Bridgestone/Firestone already is facing dozens of lawsuits.

This is the second largest tire recall in history. The largest also involved Firestone tires. Firestone recalled 14.5 million steel-belted radial tires in 1978, which sent the company into financial distress. Firestone was acquired im 1988 by Japanese tiremaker Bridgestone.

Bridgestone/Firestone declined to project the cost of the latest recall.

Reach Frank Witsil at 823-3352.


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