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WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal safety officials opened an investigation Tuesday into 2.7 million tires that Ford Motor Co. has used on the F150 pickup and as replacements in its recall of Firestone tires.

Ford immediately responded by removing the P235/70R16 size of the General Ameri EmLeader 550 AS tire from its list of approved replacements.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there have been at least 338 claims of tread separation on the tire – the same problem that plagued some Firestone tire lines and led to last summer’s massive recall.

The claims include three crashes, two of them rollovers. There have reports of 17 injuries, but no deaths, the agency said.

More than 2.7 million of the tires have been made, and most were sold as original equipment on the F150 pickup. Ford is not offering to replace tires on those vehicles.

Ford also included the tire on its list of more than 60 approved replacements in its May recall of 13 million Firestone tires. The automaker said only about 4,300 of the General Ameri EmLeader 550 tires have been used as a substitute for the 3 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires that have been replaced so far.

“Our testing indicates that the Ameri EmLeader 550 AS P235/70R16 meets our performance and durability requirements,” Sue Cischke, Ford’s vice president of safety, said in a statement. “Nevertheless, to alleviate any customer confusion, we have removed this tire from our approved tire replacement list until NHTSA completes its investigation.”

Continental Tire North America Inc., which manufactures the General tire brand, criticized NHTSA for opening an investigation based on claims data. The company said claims are not evidence of a defect.

“We are deeply disappointed that NHTSA has opened this preliminary evaluation and believe the data shows there is no basis for further investigation,” the tire maker said in a statement. “We also believe this preliminary evaluation is politically motivated and patently unwarranted and not based on any historical standards for opening an investigation.”

NHTSA’s action was triggered by information collected by congressional staffers investigating the safety of Firestone tires.

At a hearing last month, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin announced that some of the tire brands that Ford was using to replace Firestone tires had higher rates of claims for injury and property damage.

He would not name the tires until NHTSA had a chance to review the committee’s analysis. NHTSA refused to identify the other 10 lines that it examined but decided not to investigate.

Tauzin, R-La., said in a statement that “NHTSA is taking an important step today toward better safeguarding American drivers.”

NHTSA said Continental has made several design and production changes to these tires since they were first made in April 1995.

NHTSA said the claims rates for tires made after July 1998 were extremely low, and there have been no injuries attributed to those tires.

“Nevertheless, to assure that relevant information is not missed, NHTSA’s investigation will consider the safety performance of the entire population of these tires, rather than only those produced prior to those design changes,” NHTSA said in a statement.

Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said just because there have not been problems with the newer tires yet doesn’t mean they won’t fail in the future.

“The redesigned tires are newer and history suggests that it takes two to three years before any potential tread belt problems surface,” he said.

Johnson said while the General Ameri EmLeader 550 that NHTSA is investigating had 124.4 tread separation claims per million tires produced, the same size Wilderness AT tire had 17.4 per million. He said none of the six tread separation claims on those tires resulted in injury.

“For many consumers, that can’t be too comforting,” he said.

NHTSA is wrapping up its yearlong investigation into more than 55 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has already voluntarily recalled 6.5 million of the tires, but NHTSA said it will push for a larger recall.

Bridgestone/Firestone says the tires are safe and it will fight such an order in court.

Ford, concerned about the safety of the Wilderness AT tires, recalled all 13 million of the tires on its vehicles in May at a cost of $2.1 billion. Bridgestone/Firestone cut off its centurylong business partnership with Ford that same week.



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