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Tire dispute keeps flaring

Bridgestone points at Ford. Reports surface of widespread problems in 1996. And a Senate hearing is planned today.

The controversy over Firestone tire failures on Ford vehicles widened and deepened Monday:

In a sometimes tearful news conference Monday in Tokyo, Bridgestone Corp.'s president said he is considering a Firestone management shakeup in the United States, denied that there was a companywide coverup of the problem, and subtly suggested that the Ford Explorer might share blame for accidents that have killed 88 Americans.

Reports surfaced of serious problems in 1996 with Firestone tires in Arizona.

At a hearing today, the Clinton administration will reportedly seek authority to levy unlimited fines on automakers and suppliers that don't report safety problems.

BRIDGESTONE: Bridgestone Corp.'s president suggested Monday that tires made at the company's U.S. subsidiary were not structurally defective, though he acknowledged Bridgestone should have exercised greater quality control.

Yoichiro Kaizaki said in his first news conference since the company announced the recall of 6.5-million tires in the United States that he would "Bridgestone-ize" Firestone to boost quality standards, starting with sending a management team from Tokyo.

He also said he was struck that there was a high accident rate only for Ford Explorers fitted with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s tires, and not for other carmakers' vehicles that used the same products, though he stopped short of blaming the automaker.

Ford did not immediately return calls seeking comment. The company has said that most of the reported accidents have involved Explorers because most of the recalled tires still in use were sold on Explorers.

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee investigators have been presented with examples showing Ford Explorers have been involved in numerous rollover accidents on non-Firestone tires, including some made by Goodyear. Ford, in pointing the blame at Firestone, has said that more than 2-million Goodyear tires never experienced problems on Explorers.

ARIZONA: While Bridgestone/Firestone says serious safety concerns arose only this year, the tiremaker as far back as 1996 took complaints of tread separations and blowouts in Arizona seriously enough to send a half-dozen engineers on a special inspection mission and to help pay for replacing a wrecked vehicle. Those problems were so serious that some state agencies still refuse to use Firestone tires.

According to government officials interviewed by the Associated Press and state records examined by AP, the complaints from state agencies that relied on light trucks, such as the Game and Fish Department, were numerous and specific in pointing out tread separation problems and blowouts. Game and Fish's 400-vehicle fleet is made up primarily of pickups, light duty trucks and SUVs.

The tiremaker said it could find no defect responsible for the failures and suggested drivers were underinflating their tires, overloading their vehicles or otherwise misusing the tires. Some agencies started relying on other brands.

Among the models with which Game and Fish had problems were certain Firestone Firehawk ATX tires, which had blown out so often employees had their own name for them.

"We called them "Deathhawks,' " said Dave Conrad, a field supervisor. "Almost every one of our guys had one of those tires go bad on them."

CIVIL FINES: The Clinton administration will reportedly ask Congress today for authority to levy unlimited civil fines on automakers and suppliers who fail to report safety problems to government regulators.

Quoting an unnamed administration official, the Los Angeles Times reported that the request will be part of a reform package that Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater will present at a hearing today before Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The senator will seek quick passage, an aide said.

GM air bag defects

DETROIT _ General Motors Corp. has warned owners of 290,000 Buick and Oldsmobile sedans that driver-side air bags could deploy unexpectedly, but a recall will not begin until later this year because GM does not have parts to fix the problem.

GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said 60 injuries, all minor, have been reported from 115 incidents of air bag deployment in the vehicles. The problem affects 103,000 1995 Buick Regals and 187,000 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes from 1995-96 sold in the United States and Canada.

_ Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.