Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall

Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC (Firestone) announced a massive recall after its tires were linked to numerous vehicle accidents, resulting in forty-six deaths and hundreds of injuries. Many of the accidents involved the popular Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle. The event, which involved 14.4 million tires manufactured in North America, was one of the largest product recalls in history and occurred only after intense pressure from government and consumer safety groups.

Summary of Event

On November 22, 1999, a lawyer from east Texas convinced a state judge that a fourteen-year-old girl who had died in a 1998 motor vehicle accident might not have been the only victim of an incident involving Firestone tires. The teen was killed when the tread peeled off the Firestone tires of the Ford Explorer in which she was riding. The Explorer veered left and turned over. The judge ordered the tire company to hand over any lawsuits or complaints about its ATX and Wilderness tires. Within months, the media were reporting numerous accidents involving Firestone tires and, in many cases, the Explorer, which was the best-selling sport utility vehicle (SUV) in the United States. Many of the accidents occurred when the tire treads peeled off their casings, causing vehicles to go out of control and sometimes overturn. Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire
Firestone tire recall
Consumer protection
[kw]Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall (Aug. 9, 2000)
[kw]Firestone Announces Massive Recall, Bridgestone/ (Aug. 9, 2000)
[kw]Recall, Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive (Aug. 9, 2000)
Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire
Firestone tire recall
Consumer protection
[g]North America;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
[g]United States;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
[g]Mexico;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
[g]Canada;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
[c]Business and labor;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
[c]Trade and commerce;Aug. 9, 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone Announces Massive Recall[10770]
Crigger, Gary
Lampe, James
Nasser, Jacques
Ono, Masatoshi
Claybrook, Joan

On August 9, 2000, Gary Crigger, the executive vice president of Firestone, announced a recall involving 14.4 million tires manufactured since 1990. The recall immediately affected 6.5 million tires believed to be in use. The tire lines included 15-inch models—3.8 million Radial ATX and ATX II tires, both standard on Ford Ranger pickup trucks, and 2.7 million Wilderness AT tires. Many of the recalled tires were manufactured in Decatur, Illinois, for the Explorer and its “twin” counterpart, the Mercury Mountaineer. The recall was conducted in phases, because of Firestone’s low inventory of replacement tires. At one point, Firestone agreed to replace some of the tires with competitors’ products.

Crigger called the recall voluntary and said that the move was made to protect consumers’ safety and to strengthen confidence in the company. However, Firestone announced the recall only after being pressured by tire retailers, consumer safety groups, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Discount Tire, Montgomery Ward, and Sears had stopped selling the tires a week before the recall.

Since May, 2000, the NHTSA had investigated at least 193 accidents involving vehicles equipped with the tires. Those accidents had resulted in forty-six deaths and many serious injuries. Of 270 official complaints received during that investigation, 75 percent involved Explorers. Crigger told the media that most of the accidents had been reported in the warmer southern states and suggested that heat might have contributed to the tires’ failure. At first, the company focused the recall in California, Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Joan Claybrook, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen Public Citizen safety advocacy group and former NHTSA administrator, was among many who criticized Firestone for delaying a recall. Claybrook alleged that Firestone had known about problems with the tires for at least eight years.

Throughout 2000, a congressional committee conducted an inquiry into allegations that Firestone executives had tried to hide complaints about the tires. In September, Jacques Nasser, chief executive officer of Ford Motor Company, Ford Motor Company;Firestone tire recall and Masatoshi Ono, Firestone’s chief executive officer, appeared before the U.S. Congress. Ono apologized to the families of the victims. Nasser assailed Firestone, saying that the issue was about tires, not vehicles.

U.S. lawmakers investigated reports that Firestone had already been replacing similar tires in at least eighteen other countries. Lawyers said that Firestone had logged hundreds of customer complaints of tread separation and that the tires had been implicated in numerous fatality accidents in Saudi Arabia. Firestone had initiated a recall of tires in that country in July, 1999. In September, 2000, some media reported the contents of a 1999 Ford memo suggesting that Firestone tried to keep secret information it had about defective tires in Saudi Arabia.

At the time of the recall, Firestone was already in the middle of a public relations crisis, having become the public target of Nasser. For weeks before and after the recall, Firestone and Ford maintained a heated battle of blame. Firestone’s initial reaction to the public reports was to accuse Ford of recommending an incorrect inflation rate. The company accused Ford of telling Explorer customers to use a tire inflation rate of 26 pounds per square inch (psi), compared with Firestone’s recommended 30 psi. In August, 2000, some media reported, based on leaked Ford internal documents from 1989, that the company’s engineers advised underinflating tires to decrease the chances of a rollover in the SUVs. In September, Ford announced that it was recommending the higher tire pressure of 30 psi for the tires on its Explorers.

Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In December, Firestone issued a report citing four possible causes for the tire failures: the shoulder design of the 15-inch ATX tires, the way the rubber was processed at the Decatur plant, the lower inflation pressure, and the higher load limits recommended by Ford for the Explorer.

In April, 2001, Ford submitted a report to the NHTSA blaming the tire failures on faulty design and accusing Firestone of consumer negligence. Ford announced in May that it would replace thirteen million Firestone Wilderness AT tires, mainly on Explorers, that had been excluded from the recall. James Lampe, who had replaced Ono as Firestone chief executive officer in the fall of 2000, announced that the company would complete current contracts with Ford but would not sell tires to the automaker in the future.

In June, 2001, Firestone released charts showing that Explorers had ten times the tire failure rate of other Ford vehicles. All that summer, consumer groups, lawyers, and lawmakers criticized Ford, suggesting that the automaker’s Explorer had design flaws and steering problems that contributed to the deadly accidents.


The 2000 recall was second only to then-independent Firestone’s recall of 14.5 million tires in 1978. That recall, which involved many complaints but far fewer serious injuries, nearly destroyed the company, but the Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corporation bought it in 1988. Bridgestone/Firestone of Nashville, Tennessee, then became the U.S. subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc.

The faulty tires were eventually blamed for thousands of injuries and 271 deaths. The recall cost Bridgestone/Firestone millions of dollars, but the real cost was the loss of its reputation as a trustworthy company. The company struggled to maintain and rebuild its consumer base. In April, 2001, the company launched a new consumer program, “Making It Right,” which included production upgrades and extended warranties on many tire lines. Lampe appeared in advertisements promoting the company’s commitment to safety.

The auto and tire companies reached a joint agreement in October, 2005, settling all financial issues stemming from the recall and Ford’s 2001 tire-replacement program. In the settlement, Firestone agreed to pay Ford $240 million. In retrospect, some critics blamed both companies, suggesting that the SUV accidents might have resulted from the lethal combination of the wrong tires on the wrong vehicles.

Firestone suffered in the years following the recall, not only because of the financial strain but also because of how the crisis was handled. For months, Firestone was in the news constantly, its logo pictured beside a shredded tire or demolished SUV and its chief executive officer appearing in front of a congressional committee or exchanging heated words with a Ford executive. When a public crisis erupted, Firestone ignored two basic rules of public relations: act quickly and tell the truth. In the initial stages of the recall, two major public relations agencies dropped the Firestone account. Through its actions, Firestone also disregarded basic principles of business ethics that advocate public safety, customer service, and strong relationships with other companies.

Critics and public relations experts agree that Firestone reacted to the situation in the worst way possible by ignoring the problem, delaying the recall, and trying to place blame elsewhere. Even though Ono publicly apologized to accident victims’ families, Firestone never seemed to take responsibility, or admit fault, for the tire defects. Meanwhile, for business and public relations students, this event became a case study of how not to handle a recall. Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire
Firestone tire recall
Consumer protection

Further Reading

  • Eisenberg, Daniel, et al. “Anatomy of a Recall.” Time, September 11, 2000, 28-32. Gives a time line of the events surrounding the 2000 Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall, focusing on a six-month period.
  • Gibson, Dirk. “Firestone’s Failed Recalls, 1978 and 2000: A Public Relations Explanation.” Public Relations Quarterly 45 (Winter, 2000): 10-13. Compares and contrasts Firestone’s two major tire recalls.
  • _______. “Two Sides to Every Story: In Defense of Bridgestone/Firestone.” Public Relations Quarterly 46 (Spring, 2001): 18-22. Provides insight into why Bridgestone/Firestone suffered a huge public relations setback after the 2000 tire recall and why a previous recall in 1978 did not have the same damaging effect on the company.
  • Penenberg, Adam. Tragic Indifference: One Man’s Battle with the Auto Industry over the Dangers of SUVs. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Well-documented account of the corporate indifference by the Firestone and Ford companies and attorney Tab Turner’s efforts to hold the companies accountable.

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