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Government to expand tire recall

The federal government will force Bridgestone/Firestone to expand its recall of faulty tires that have led to deadly rollover accidents worldwide.

The decision came Thursday after federal investigators urged the tire manufacturer to remove from the road up to 7-million more Wilderness AT tires. At a meeting, the company offered to replace 400,000, saying it will fight any other recall in court, even if it takes years.

"If one of our tires might jeopardize that safety, then we'll take it off the road," Firestone CEO John Lampe said in a statement. "We've done it before and, if it becomes necessary, we'll do it again. But that is simply not the case here."

If the government succeeds in getting an expanded recall, Firestone may be forced to pick up the tab for Ford's informal recall of 13-million Firestone tires in May. It also may have to replace millions of other Wilderness AT tires on sport utility vehicles not made by Ford.

Either could be devastating for Firestone of Nashville, Tenn., which has spent more than $900-million on the recall, faces hundreds of lawsuits and plans to close its Decatur, Ill., plant, the site of the initial problems. Tire analysts estimated an expanded recall would cost the company $1-billion.

"Firestone was asked to recall some of the tires and they refused to do so," according to a statement by the Department of Transportation late Thursday. "Therefore, (the government) will issue an initial defect decision, the next step toward a forced recall."

Lampe and other company officials called Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta on Thursday and plan to take their case to Capitol Hill today to dispute the government findings.

Firestone voluntarily recalled 14.4-million tires last summer but has repeatedly refused requests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration _ a part of the Transportation Department _ and Ford Motor Co. to broaden the replacement program.

The tires in the proposed expanded recall are Wilderness ATs made at Firestone's Wilson, N.C., and Joliet, Quebec, plants, according to published reports. Ford already is spending $3-billion to replace many of these tires.

Ford insists more tires suffer the same flaws as recalled tires that led to deadly accidents and is replacing 13-million Wilderness AT tires on light trucks and SUVs, including the popular Explorer.

"The defective tires may be off the road already. The bottom line now is more about who is responsible," said Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer specializing in vehicle rollover litigation. "Ford could present a bill to Firestone."

The federal inquiry into 47-million Firestone tires is well into its second year, but the government has yet to issue a mandatory recall or tell the public if other tires or vehicles have the same problems.

Department of Transportation officials declined to elaborate on the decision to force an expanded recall. Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the agency could not force a recall until after its investigation was complete. "We're awfully close," Tyson said.

The federal highway agency estimates that 203 people died and 700 more were injured in the United States in rollover accidents.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis shows that at least 43 people have been killed in Florida since 1997 in SUVs equipped with Firestone tires. The state's most recent crash occurred Saturday, killing a St. Petersburg mother and her teenage son.

Thirteen of the Florida fatalities were in vehicles equipped with tires still on the road that may suffer from the same flaws that caused tread separations on those recalled last year.

Lampe complained Thursday that the agency has not shared its data with Firestone and said his company's analysis found no safety problems that warranted an expanded recall.

"It doesn't matter whether Firestone agrees or not, (the agency) is going to start formal proceedings against the company," said Ocala lawyer Bruce Kaster, who specializes in defective tire cases and is involved in suits against both Ford and Firestone.

The first step for the government is laying out in the Federal Register the scope of a proposed recall and the problems it found with the tires. Within 30 days, there will be a public hearing, and then the highway agency will make its determination on a recall. If the company does not comply then, the agency would go to court.

Ford and Firestone have engaged in a public feud for months about which company is responsible for scores of deadly accidents.

The second-largest automaker points the finger at faulty tires. Firestone _ a subsidiary of Bridgestone of Tokyo, the largest tiremaker in the world _ insists Ford produced the Explorer with a deadly tendency to flip.

"We now know this to be a fact: You can take every Firestone tire off every Explorer and the rollovers and fatal accidents will continue," Lampe said in his statement.

At Firestone's request, the highway agency began a review of the Explorer and will announce this summer whether to open a formal inquiry.

Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering, said Thursday the company was continuing its effort to "ensure the safety and trust of our customers" by replacing Wilderness AT tires. Three-million have been replaced since May.

The federal agency is expected today to release to Congress the results of a 30-day study into the safety of Ford's replacement tires. Most of the tires have no significant problems but one, manufactured by Continental Tire North America, has high property damage claims rates.

Ford is using a newer, redesigned version of the tire to replace Firestone tires on the Ranger and 1997 F-series trucks.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.