Ford facing allegations

Venezuela’s consumer protection agency has found evidence suggesting that, in at least one case, the shock absorbers on Ford Explorers may have gouged Bridgestone/Firestone tyres, causing a blow-out.

A Ford spokesman denied the claim the shock absorbers may be behind the blowouts.

The Venezuela agency is investigating at least 46 deaths allegedly linked to accidents involving Explorers equipped with Bridgestone/Firestone tyres.

Samuel Ruh, head of the agency, said they had found an accident-damaged Explorer in which the tyres were contacting the shock absorbers. Ruh told a congressional hearing on accidents in Venezuela: ‘the tyres were making contact with a mechanical part and that mechanical part is (part of) the shock absorbers Ford has been changing.’

Ford was changing the shock absorbers on the Venezuelan Explorer models in 1999 to give the sports utility vehicles a rougher ride desired by consumers. Officials from Firestone claim Ford made the change to correct design flaws.

Ruh did not say if the agency suspected that there were more cases connected to the shocks absorbers. Pastor Heydra, head of the congressional investigation, said Venezuela would ask Ford and Firestone to simulate Explorer accidents with and without the modified suspensions in a bid to determine if the design changes are in any way linked to the accidents.

Venezuela’s attorney general has granted Indecu, the government consumer protection agency, further powers to investigate the deaths and Indecu is already considering ordering Ford to reinforce suspension systems on approximately 30,000 Explorers in Venezuela.

Ford maintains that tread separation in some Firestone tyres was a ‘common factor’ in the accidents and that many tires didn’t meet strength and speed specifications. Firestone’s Venezuelan subsidiary says the problem stems from mislabelling, in which four-ply tyres were substituted for five-ply tyres ordered by Ford.

Ruh said his agency would recommend criminal proceedings against Ford and Firestone and insist that the presidents of both companies’ subsidiaries be barred from leaving Venezuela until the investigation concludes. Officials have asked the U.S. Congress for data on accidents in the United States.

U.S. and Venezuelan authorities have accused Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford of covering up information about tire problems for two years before taking steps to recall their products.