Small-town insurance man blew whistle

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The Independent US

The great American consumer battles of the past were often romantic affairs: think of Ralph Nader and his team of researchers pitting themselves against General Motors in the 1960s like Davids against a corporate Goliath - and winning.

The great American consumer battles of the past were often romantic affairs: think of Ralph Nader and his team of researchers pitting themselves against General Motors in the 1960s like Davids against a corporate Goliath - and winning.

But the man who first spotted the faulty Bridgestone tyres now being recalled in their millions by the Ford motor company is no romantic, just a humble employee in a vast Midwestern insurance company office.

Sam Boyden is the wrong side of 40, has thinning hair, and lives in the distinctly unglamorous town of Bloomington in the middle of Illinois farm country. But, as a claims researcher for State Farm, one of the nation's biggest insurance companies, he was uniquely placed to notice the high number of car accidents involving tread separation in Bridgestone ATX tyres.

Back in July 1998, he was asked to look into tread separation problems - something he knew from his experience and interest in cars to be rare. He dug up 21 cases since 1992, all involving Bridgestone ATXs and almost all on the Ford Explorer model of four-wheel drive.

Rather than simply sit on the information, he alerted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He received a message of thanks but no more. His curiosity piqued, he gathered more information,on his own initiative. When he saw an escalation of the problem - 30 accidents in 1999 alone - he contacted the NHTSA again. And in June this year the federal agency got back to him asking for more details.

The fall-out has been spectacular: 6.5 million tyres recalled so far, with another 1.4 million being urged upon Ford by the government. Ford is being sued in Venezuela for criminal neglect, and further repercussions seem likely.

"I am just a normal guy who was doing his job," Mr Boyden told The Wall Street Journal last week in his first ever media interview. "With each one of these tyre failures, someone could die."

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