Tire recall shows more than our cars are in peril

This Just In...

September 06, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

I SHARE the breakfast nook with someone who owns a vehicle with Firestone Wilderness tires. This is the type of light truck or sport utility tire that, under certain conditions, can peel apart like a spiral-cut ham, causing the vehicle (frequently a Ford Explorer) to flip, killing or injuring its occupants.

It's happened, in one form or another, hundreds of times over the last several years.

The other day we visited a Firestone dealer to get on a waiting list for replacement tires. The manager took one look at the Wilderness tires in question - Wilderness HTs - and assured us they were not the type in the Firestone recall. The tires subject to recall, he said, were Wilderness ATs.

That was a relief. Sort of.

But the next day, there was this announcement from Washington: "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is recommending that owners of vehicles with certain models and sizes of Firestone tires not already being recalled take a number of actions to assure their safety. Although its investigation is not complete, [NHTSA's] review indicated that the rate of tread separations for certain other tire models and sizes exceeds those of the recalled tires, sometimes by a large margin."

Translation: Other Firestone tires, still on the road, are even more dangerous than the ones being recalled.

"NHTSA recommends that you consider replacing the tires in question, and that you retain all documentation."

Translation: Get rid of them.

The NHTSA published a list of the other tires that it - but not Firestone - believes to be dangerous. This time the list included the Wilderness HT.

But a very specific Wilderness HT - size P255/70R15 - and, it turns out, not the one on the vehicle that sometimes transports my kids to school.

I wish I could say I feel a whole lot better, but I don't. Even if you're not driving on recalled tires, you should be troubled by this story, and you should remember it when it's time to vote in November.

To date, some 15 million tires manufactured by one company are suspected by the government of being a threat to public safety. And some of the tire defects go back 10 years. Ford Motor Co. recalled Firestone tires in 16 countries without taking action in the United States or even notifying the NHTSA about the foreign recalls. Consumers, who've invested millions of dollars in tires they were led to believe were safely designed, only found out about this last month.

And I'm about ready to vote for Ralph Nader.

The Firestone mess is emblematic of one of the most serious problems in modern American life - the power of big business over government. It's not that the NHTSA was too late on the uptake, it's that the regulatory agency was no match for big corporations, and we've abided that condition for years.

Nader is right. It doesn't matter who's in the White House; there's so much money flowing from large corporations - from entire industries - to influence elections and legislative votes that the public interest is lost.

The Democrats might be more liberal than the Republicans on social issues, but they've pretty much lost the sense of eternal vigilance against corporate power and greed Franklin Delano Roosevelt wove into the mantle of his party. Roosevelt would be appalled by what he'd see here today: A corporate class blended sufficiently with a political class, forming an insular culture in which democratically elected leaders, millionaire Democrats and Republicans, see themselves primarily as agents of economic growth - not regulators, not watchdogs, certainly not servants of the poor.

That more than 44 million Americans do not have health insurance stands as evidence of this condition, and it should be a point of shame for a party that has had eight years in the White House.

Still, the Democrats are relatively new to the corporate bedroom.

Republicans are the grand old masters of government-as-enemy politics. They've been at it for years. "Less government, better government" - especially as it applies to big business - was a credo of the Reagan revolution.

It was during the Reagan years, for instance, that the NHTSA came under attack as a burden on the automobile industry. The Reagan administration cut the agency's budget and rejected proposals to strengthen and extend its authority. It went out of its way to make sure car manufacturers were not required to provide new technology to warn drivers about underinflated tires. (Low pressure in Firestone tires on the Explorer is thought to be part of the reason for the numerous accidents and fatalities.)

Of course, it's a safe bet that some Americans driving around today in Explorers with dangerous Firestone tires voted for Reagan. And those true believers are probably condemning the government - the NHTSA, particularly - for not doing enough to monitor tire safety.

The Democrats, meanwhile, haven't done much for the NHTSA since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and that's no accident. Battered during the 1980s, Democrats remember better the lessons of the Reagan revolution than the lessons of the New Deal. Bill Clinton and others emerged from the Democratic Leadership Council (present chairman: Joseph Lieberman) with a mission distilled from Reagan-era conservatism, topped with muted social liberalism, financed with hundreds of millions in corporate contributions. The result was a middling political ideology that raises few challenges to the ruling corporate class. Few and far between are the prominent Democrats who have the courage to cast government in the positive light of a progressive, ever-vigilant guardian of the public interest, health and safety.

That's why some people are tempted to vote for Ralph Nader. That's why the Firestone story should hit home, even if you don't have Wilderness HTs in the driveway.

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