WASHINGTON (AP) - The federal government warned consumers Friday that 1.4 million Firestone tires the manufacturer refused to recall could pose a safety risk and should be replaced.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announcement came one day after the agency said 26 more U.S. traffic deaths - for a total of 88 - are under investigation in connection with recalled Firestone tires that are standard equipment on some Ford Motor Co. vehicles, including the Explorer.
NHTSA issued a rare ''consumer advisory'' for tires not included in Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s voluntary recall of 6.5 million tires that started three weeks ago. The move came after company officials rejected the agency's recommendation that the recall be expanded, NHTSA said in a statement.
More than 1,400 complaints about the Firestone tires have been sent to NHTSA, including reports of 88 deaths and more than 250 injuries that reportedly were the result of blowouts, tread separation and other tire defects. The probe is focusing on 47 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires.
As for the tires covered by the advisory, NHTSA said its investigation found the rate of tread separation sometimes exceeded that found on the recall tires ''by a large margin.''
''We are continuing our investigation, which may result in an order directing Firestone to recall these tires and any other defective tires,'' the agency said. ''However, in view of the potential safety risk, NHTSA believes that it is important to alert the public of its concerns now.''
Bridgestone/Firestone officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
NHTSA cannot order a recall expanded until it completes an investigation, so the advisory was the agency's only alternative. The advisory differs from a recall in that the company cited does not replace the product.
The agency suggested that consumers replace the tires in question and save the receipts.
''I think that the important thing here is that the agency is being much more proactive,'' said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator who now heads the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen. ''It's very tuned into the catastrophic nature of this problem and the importance of keeping consumers informed.''
NHTSA says many of the tires covered by the advisory were manufactured many years ago, so it is likely far fewer than 1.4 million are on the road.
The agency opened its investigation in May, nearly a year after Ford began an overseas recall of Firestone tires. NHTSA has said it was unaware of the foreign recall and Ford and the tire company have come under fire for not alerting the agency sooner, though no law requires notification.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have said they do not know what caused the problems with the tires but have denied allegations by trial attorneys and some safety advocates that they stem from poor tire design, a tire inflation recommendation from Ford that was too low, or both.
Ford has been distancing itself from longtime partner Bridgestone/Firetone. Ford spokesman Jason Vines reiterated Friday what company CEO Jac Nasser said the day before: ''This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue.''
Congress is holding hearings on the matter next week, and Nasser announced Thursday that he would testify, reversing his earlier decision not to attend. Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive Masatoshi Ono also will appear at the Wednesday hearing before two House panels.
The advisory includes various sizes of the ATX, Firehawk ATX, ATX 23 Degree, Widetrack Radial Baja, Widetrack Radial Baja A/S, Wilderness AT and Wilderness HT lines. Three of the 24 tire types were original equipment on the 1991 model year Chevy Blazer, 1991-1994 Nissan Pick Up and 1996-1998 Ford F150.
Nissan said there are probably fewer than 20,000 of the advisory tires on its pickups, Ford estimated there are 400 on the F150 and Blazer manufacturer General Motors Corp. said it's unlikely that the tires sold with their vehicle a decade ago would still be in use.
On the Net:
Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov