After 10,000 road accidents Ford may face criminal charge

American car maker moves to limit damage as 62 deaths are linked to scandal of unsafe four-wheel-drives
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Ford motor company has started a damage-limitation exercise, fronted by its head, Jacques Nasser, to safeguard its reputation in the face of a massive recall of tyres.

Ford motor company has started a damage-limitation exercise, fronted by its head, Jacques Nasser, to safeguard its reputation in the face of a massive recall of tyres.

The recall, announced this month, affects six million tyres made by the Japanese-owned Bridgestone/Firestone company but the recriminations have also called into question the safety of a popular Ford model.

The problem for Ford is that the tyres are fitted as standard on its Explorer model, a four-wheel-drive "sport utility vehicle", and are implicated in as many as 10,000 accidents in which a total of 62 people have died.

Accident records show that the tread on certain types and sizes of Firestone products peels away from the body of the tyre. When that happens, commonly at high speed, the car careers out of control and in many cases overturns.

In a prime-time television commercial that started airing this week, Mr Nasser makes a personal pledge to replace all the tyres subject to the Firestone recall and stresses his confidence in the Explorer - "My family owns three". The recall, announced by Ford in conjunction with Firestone on 9 August, has had Explorer owners in the US scrambling to find replacement tyres. It also prompted Ford to fund purchases of tyres from other suppliers, such as Goodyear. It is also flying additional consignments from Japan.

The more that emerges about the background, the more questions come to light, boiling down to: what did the companies know and when did they know it? Bridgestone recalled some of the same tyres in a number of countries well before submitting to a recall in America, but says it did not need to tell US regulators. (The suspect tyres are not supplied in Britain.)

The outcry reached such a pitch that Congress has scheduled a hearing next week and summoned the two company heads - Mr Nasser and Masatoshi Ono of Bridgestone - to testify. Mr Ono, rarely seen in public, has said he will appear. Mr Nasser declined and will send two junior executives.

When the recall was first announced - after days of speculation - it was restricted to particular tyres made at one US plant, Decatur, in Illinois, which had a history of troubled labour relations. The inference was that the problem was one of quality control at one US plant. Public pressure for a wider recall - of other types made at other Bridgestone factories - was resisted.

But in reality the problem was not so simple. The tyre company claimed, and sources from the US highway safety agency confirmed, that Bridgestone and Ford set different inflation standards for the tyres on the Explorer. Bridgestone recommended 30lb, while Ford recommended 26lb and this is how the cars were supplied and serviced. Ford's recommendation, it was said - but not by the company - reflected the fact that the Explorer regularly failed stability tests when cornering unless the tyres were, by Bridgestone's standards, under-inflated.

By this week Bridgestone was back in the dock after Ford disclosed that there had been defects in tyres supplied for Explorers sold in Venezuela. It said the tread-separation problems there appeared to be "a thousand times" worse than at Decatur. In addition, Ford said, new specifications it had stipulated for the tyres supplied by the Venezuela plant had not been introduced, and tyres had been mislabelled as five-ply when they were actually four-ply.

The Venezuela authorities announced a criminal investigation of Bridgestone. The country's consumer protection agency is expected to issue a report today accusing Bridgestone and Ford of not acting quickly enough on complaints. News of the investigation caused Bridgestone shares, which have lost 40 per cent of their value since the US recall was announced, to fall to a five-year low.