Whether it is deliberate, as the consumer advocates contend, or not, the recall of Firestone 500 steel-belted randial tires can be described in one word: chaos.
For its part, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. says it already has replaced an estimated 300,000 tires and is working round the clock producing 400,000 tires a month "towards meeting the needs of the recall."
Meanwhile, the final recall agreement, which was supposed to be signed by Nov. 7. remains unsigned, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done little to force the tiremaker to hold to the earlier agreement in principle signed by both earlier this month.
While internal bickering in NHTSA, and between NHTSA and the Justice Department, goes on over how strong the agency should - and could - be in its attempts to force Firestone to adhere to the rules, tens of thousands of motorists remain confused over whether or not their tires are covered by the recall. They also are unsure of how far they can go with their Firestone dealer in an attempt to get tires they worry about off their wheels.
NHTSA gets several hundred telephone calls a day, accoring to administrator Joan Claybrook, who negotiated the voluntary recall between the government and the tiremaker last month, thus heading off a possible legal confrontation over a government-ordered mandatory recall.
The confusion arises from the telegram Firestone sent to its own dealers without telling us," Claybrook says. "That telegram took certian liberties which have led to difficulties in reaching the final agreement."
While it had never been discussed at the bargaining table. Firestone decided it could tell dealers that any tire worn down to the point where 2/32 inches of tread was remaining would not be covered by the recall, because it had lived its useful life." That issue is just now being argued with the government.
The recall telegram Firestone sent to dealers last month was 10 pages long, and so complicated as to be almost incomprehensible.
"The more complicated it is," says Claybrook, "the more difficult it is for the public to understand what their rights are. We are pressing for simplicity in our final agreement."
Claybrook says, as she has many times before, that the final agreement is close - "probably by Monday."
"NHTSA has abdicated its law enforcement authority," says Ralph Nader, whose Center for Auto Safety first brought the Firestone tire problem to the attention of the government. "Millions of Firestone tireowners are now left on their own to achieve whatever justice they can from deals."
Nader claims that Firestone is deliberately confusing the issues in an attempt to waste time and save money on tires that drop out of the market-place before they can be recalled. He claims that the company saves more than a million dollars a week each week people cannot get to a dealer for a recall.
The company denies this charge. "We are trying to follow the rules spelled out by NHTSA for the recall and we are working hard to straighten out my misunderstandings that are bound to come up in something this big." said a Firestone spokesman on Friday. "In a recall this size, some temporary shortages are bound to develop . . . but we are trying to handle customers as quickly, fairly and conveniently as possible."
Still, motorists going into downtown Washington Firestone dealers were told they would have to wait until February or March before they could get an appointment to trade in their tires.
In a letter to Claybrook from Campaign Firestone, a consumer group spinoff of the Center for Auto Safety, center executive director Clarence Ditlow called the terms of the voluntary recall agreement "superficial and vague."
Ditlow also accused Firestone of diluting the recall's effects "by telegraphing distorted directions to its dealer for implementation of the recall."
NHTSA has had its own internal problems over the recall. Claybrook is feuding with members of her own legal staff, including chief counsel Joseph Levin, sources in the agency say. While she has tried to push Levin into using more aggresive tactics, he has chosen to be more conservative, and less anxious to take Firestone to court.
The Justice Department also been less than delighted with the possibility of taking Firestone to court to force a complete recall. Assistant Attorney General Barbara Babcock had expressed concern to Claybrook that Firestone could get the case heard in federal court in Cleveland, a court which has a pro-industry reputation.