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Saudis Close Door to Vehicles With Firestone Tires

Safety: Bridgestone denounces the prohibition on imports as too broad and calls it a violation of international trade agreements.

September 28, 2000|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The government of Saudi Arabia has taken the extraordinary step of banning imports of all vehicles equipped with Firestone tires, as global fallout from the U.S. recall of millions of Firestones continues to spread.

The Saudi Arabian Standards Organization, a government health and safety agency, informed vehicle manufacturers of the ban last week, but the action became public only Wednesday when Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. issued a statement denouncing it as "uncalled for and extreme" and in violation of international treaties.

With the action, Saudi Arabia becomes the third national government, after the U.S. and Venezuela, to wade into the controversy involving a wave of tire tread separations that have been linked to scores of vehicle rollovers and fatalities.

Since the desert kingdom is not a major tire or vehicle market, the impact on sales will not be significant. But the outlawing of Firestone tires--and not just the three models covered by the U.S. recall--further tarnishes the image of Firestone as it struggles to cope with the crisis.

In a three-sentence "notice to all vehicle exporters" dated Sept. 20, the Saudi government announced that "effective immediately, the import into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of the entire range of Firestone tyres is prohibited. This is a worldwide ban on all Firestone tyres. New or used vehicles will be rejected if found to have Firestone tyres."

Saudi officials involved in the action could not be reached Wednesday.

The move follows recent revelations that Firestone resisted taking action last year following reports of at least 19 rollover crashes in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar of Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs due to failures of their Firestone tires. Ford Motor Co. wound up unilaterally offering replacement tires for about 6,800 of the vehicles.

In its statement Wednesday, Bridgestone said it has protested the Saudi action to the United States trade representative. "Such a broad ban could not possibly be justified" under rules of the World Trade Organization, the U.S.-Saudi trade agreement or provisions of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, the statement said.

Ford spokesmen said they had never heard of a country singling out a manufacturer for a ban on its tires or other components. Jim Benintende, executive director of Ford Middle East and North Africa, said the firm is "assessing the effect of this ban on shipments of Ford, Mercury and Lincoln vehicles presently on different stages of transit to Saudi Arabia."

Under pressure from Ford and consumer advocates, Firestone last month announced the recall of an estimated 6.5 million tires, including all 15-inch ATX and ATX II tires, and all 15-inch Wilderness AT tires made at its Decatur, Ill., plant. Installed as original equipment on Ford Explorers and other SUVs and light trucks, the tires have been linked to hundreds of reports of tread separation failures, scores of rollover crashes and 101 deaths in the U.S.

In Venezuela, where 46 deaths have been blamed on crashes linked to failures of the tires, federal authorities, including the country's National Assembly, are investigating both Firestone and Ford.

In Saudi Arabia, documents show that Ford, in August 1999, unilaterally began a tire replacement program when it could not get Firestone to go along.

Both companies have cited poor puncture repairs, broiling temperatures and long periods of driving at 100 miles per hour, often on underinflated tires, as factors in the tire failures. However, internal documents turned over to Congress suggest another factor that has received little attention: Ford's erroneous choice of a 16-inch Wilderness tire not made for that harsh environment.

Ford's Saudi distributor, Al Jazirah Vehicles, began peppering Ford and Firestone with complaints about the tires in 1998, prompting Ford to send some of the shredded tires to Firestone for analysis.

Letters and memos show that by 1999, Ford was growing restive over Firestone's long delays in analyzing failed tires and its blaming the problem on poor maintenance and repairs.

In a March 12, 1999, memo, a Ford official noted that "Firestone legal" had "major reservations" about Ford's plan to offer replacement tires. According to the memo, Firestone feared that notifying Saudi consumers might trigger a duty to tell U.S. authorities. "Second, they are afraid that the Saudi government will . . . react dramatically, including prohibiting the import of the current [Wilderness 16-inch] tire," the memo said.

Ford went ahead and offered replacement tires and was unable to get Firestone to share in the $4.3-million cost, according to a memo from August 1999.

But Ford officials acknowledged that in refusing to contribute, Firestone correctly argued that Ford, not Firestone, had decided the same 16-inch Wilderness tires in use in the U.S. would be adequate for Saudi Arabia.

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