The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received 37 complaints about tread separations on Goodyear's Load Range E tires, including reports of 31 crashes involving 15 deaths and 129 injuries. Twelve of the deaths occurred in the United States and three in Saudi Arabia.
No official determination has been been made yet on whether the accidents were actually caused by the tires or whether the tiremaker to blame.
The accidents have involved light trucks, passenger vans and small buses, according to NHTSA. The investigation will examine 21 million tires manufactured between 1991 and 1999.
Goodyear was notified Tuesday that the agency has opened a preliminary investigation.
CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports a controversial aspect of the Goodyear situation is that the tiremaker had been receiving complaints about possible tire problems and was resolving them quietly - without notifying other customers using the same tires, and without telling federal officials.
In a CBS Evening News Eye on America investigation, Attkisson reports that Goodyear's resolution of the problem included a tire redesign to make sure the tires could carry more weight.
Goodyear maintains that it did the right thing in not ordering a recall - because it never found any specific defect in the tires in question. Goodyear believes the tires instead ran into trouble because of the way the vehicles it carried were loaded, with more weight than Goodyear had expected.
Goodyear spokesman Chris Aked said Monday evening that the Load Range E tires were used as original equipment on large trucks made by Ford Motor Co. and Daimler-Chrysler AG, including the Dodge Ram 4250 and 350 series trucks. Many of those trucks have been modified for commercial purposes, he said.
The tires are sold under many different brand names and sizes, and NHTSA said it would develop a complete list during the investigation.
NHTSA opens any safety investigation with a preliminary inquiry in which the government and manufacturer exchange paperwork that includes any complaints. An investigation eventually can lead to a recall, but many end without such action.
Aked said the Akron, Ohio-based tire maker had investigated 30 accidents involving the tires and attributed them to problems such as overloading and underinflation, not a defect.
"We've said all along that we're very confident in the integrity of the tires," Aked said. "There is not any issue with the quality of the tires. There was no reason to take any action as far as I'm concerned."
Goodyear began putting an extra layer of nylon in the tires in 1996 after discovering that some of the tires were prone to filure at high speeds and at high temperatures. But Goodyear said the overall failure rate for the tires was very low and did not issue a recall.
Chris Spagnoli, a Santa Monica, Calif., attorney suing Goodyear over tread separation accidents, said: "I think there is a lot of red flags about these tires both from the accidents that we have information about and the public part of the deposition testimony."
Similar allegations led to Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s Aug. 9 recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. NHTSA has received reports of 119 deaths and more than 500 injuries involving Firestone tires.
Reports of tread separations also have plagued Continental General Tire Inc. Lawyers for accident victims suing the Charlotte, N.C.-based company say it deceived the government in a 1993 probe of its GT52S, Ameri-Way and Ameri-Tech tires.
But NHTSA said it will not investigate the allegations because the five-year statute of limitations to penalize companies that withhold information has passed.
In a statement, Continental insisted it "cooperated fully with all requests made by the NHTSA in its 1993 investigation."
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