The Federal government has given the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. until tomorrow to agree to a negotiated, voluntary recall of millions of steel belted redial tires, or the Department of Transportation will ask the Federal Court to order a recall.
Sources close to the negotiations between the government and attorney Clark Clifford, who has been representing Firestone, say that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Finestone late Tuesday that the time for negotiations was over.
Firestone's attorneys were told to take the government's final offer to corporate headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and respond-one way or the other to NHTSA by the end of the week.
At question are some 12 million Firestone 500 steel-belted radial tires still on the road which NHTSA has determined have an unspecified safety defect causing thousands of tire failures.
Some of the details of the government's final offer have been made available to the Washington Post.
First it was learned that a month ago NHTSA officials told Firestone that in order to continue negotiations, the tire maker must agree to freeze the clock on the statute of limitations at Sept. 1, 1975. Normally, NHTSA can by law only recall tires sold within the three years prior to the date of the actual recall.
Critics have charged that Firestone was deliberitly dragging its feet in the negotiations in the hope that each day of delay would eliminate thousands of tires from potential recall. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has estimated that Firestone saves more than $1 million with each week's delay.
Firestone stopped making the 500 earlier this year. The tire was first introduced in 1972.
A second part of the agreement, according to sources, involved a cut-off date in 1976 after which. Firestone claims, all tires manufactured were considerably less prone to failure. Tires manufactured after the 1976 cutoff date would not be subject to a voluntary recall.
In all, Firestone made more than a dozen design and production changes during the life of the 500. It has apparently convinced NHTSA officials that some combination of those changes, achieved in mid-1976, resulted in significantly safer tires.
In recent weeks NHTSA and Firestone officials have been combing consumer return and complaint data to see if production changes in the tire resulted in significantly lower ajustment rates the conclusion apparently is that recent 500s are safer than earlier models.
Because the government agency could not pinpoint the safety defect in the tire causing the 500 to have an abnormally high (17 percent) return rate, consumer complaint data is critical to any government mandated action.
NHTSA has contended that it can order Firestone to recall the tires without specifying the defect. The agency contends that widespread consumer complaints justify government action.
Tire industry analysts have said that a government-ordered recall could cost Firestone well in excess of $100 million. But it is believed that the negotiated voluntary recall of the type described above would cost the company considerally less, since many of the affected tires are no longer on the road, and many of the more recent models would not be covered in the negotiated settlement.
In a letter to NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, a group known as "Campaign Firestone" expressed serious doubts about the reported settlement offering.
"One issue that disturbs us is that Firestone may be attempting to limit the scope of any recall by showing lower ajustment rates for tires produced in later years," said the letter, which was written by Clarence Ditlow, who heads both "Campaign Firestone" and the related Center for Auto Safety.