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NHTSA investigating one brand of Ford replacement tires

By Julie Vallese
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing a relatively high claims rate involving tread separation, the federal government Tuesday announced it had opened a defect investigation into a model of tires that Ford Motor Co. is using to replace Firestone tires.

The investigation will focus on 2.7 million Continental General 16-inch Ameri+550 AS tires. That model tire is one of the 11 replacement tires Ford is using in its replacement program for Firestone tires.

Lawmaker questions Ford over replacement tires

In a press release, Continental blasted the government's move.

""We also believe this preliminary evaluation is politically motivated and patently unwarranted and not based on any historical standards for opening an investigation," the statement said.

Single model subject to investigation

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the Continental model is the only replacement tire the agency plans to investigate. That model tire is used to replace the Firestone Wilderness AT tires on Ford's F150 pickup truck.

The new defect investigation is the latest wrinkle in a nasty and often confusing battle between Ford and Firestone over problems associated with their products.

In May, the car manufacturer announced a massive replacement program, questioning the safety of Firestone tires, which had been standard equipment on the Ford Explorer. One day earlier, Bridgestone/Firestone severed its nearly century-old business relationship with Ford.

Earlier this month, NHTSA announced it would seek a wider recall of Firestone tires. The tires have been tied to 203 traffic deaths involving rollovers of Ford Explorers. Ford and Firestone have blamed one another for the apparent problem.

Measure welcomed by congressman

Tuesday's announcement follows a request from Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who had asked the agency to investigate whether the replacement tires being used were safe. After a June hearing on Firestone tires, Tauzin provided NHTSA with claims data for all 11 tire models, saying some of them tires may perform worse than the Firestone models.

In a statement, Tauzin welcomed the news of the investigation by NHTSA, calling it a "responsible and measured precaution."

Added Tauzin: "If this action results in saving one life or preventing even one accident, then we will have accomplished our mission."

The tread separation claims rate for the 16-inch Ameri+550 AS is 124 parts per million, according to NHTSA. That compares with a claims rate of 5 per million that Ford has said it uses as a benchmark. The rate, according to

NHTSA, "far exceeds" that of the other tire models cited by the committee.

The claims involving the 16-inch Ameri+550 AS include seven crashes, including two rollovers, and 17 claimed injuries, NHTSA said.

Continental, according to the NHTSA press release, said that since 1995 it has made design and production changes to the tires. Company officials told federal regulators that these changes reduce the likelihood of tread separation and that the claims rate for these tires manufactured after 1995 is very low.

In its press release, Continental disputed the accuracy of the claims rate and asserted the safety of the model tire in question.

"Our adjustment data for the Ameri+550AS has been excellent," the statement said. "Out of the 2.7 million tires produced, there have been only three injury-related accidents, as indicated in NHTSA's own report, and one lawsuit settled long ago. There have been no fatalities."

No determination as to safety

NHTSA said it was unaware of any crashes or injuries for six of the other ten tires cited. For the other four models, NHTSA determined tire failure may have been a contributing factor in some crashes. However, almost all of the claims involved tires manufactured in the late 1980s or 1990s. Citing the expected life of the tires, officials said they are most likely no longer on the road. Also, NHTSA said the claims from these tires did not warrant opening an investigation.

NHTSA officials emphasized that the agency has not made a determination that the Continental tires have any safety defect or pose a danger. "Issues have been raised that warrant further investigation by the agency," said a statement from the agency.

The Ameri+550 AS tires have been installed on roughly 4,300 Ford pickups as part of the car manufacturer's replacement program. So far, about 3 million Firestone tires have been replaced. When it announced the program, Ford said 13 million Firestone tires would replaced.

There was no immediate word from Ford on what the company might do in response to the new investigation.

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