Those Jailhouse Blues New safety defect law could be tough on automakers I can't imagine Jac Nasser in prison stripes. As the automotive industry's most smartly, elegantly tailored executive, the image of Ford Motor Co.'s president and CEO behind bars for producing defective, unsafe vehicles simply doesn't fit.

Yet, that's what theoretically could happen if he were to be found guilty under a new hastily conceived federal law that gives sweeping additional powers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA).

Passed by both houses of Congress as they rushed to get home on the eve of the Nov. 7 national election, the law requires automakers to provide much more information on safety-related defects than they have until now.

If their internal documents and other evidence implicate them as putting vehicles on the road that they knew had defective designs or components that could cause injuries or deaths, they could face up to 15 years in prison and $15 million in civil fines.

Congress was moved to act, of course, by the continuing controversy over faulty Firestone tires that have caused an estimated 107 deaths and some 400 injuries in the U.S., mainly when mounted on Ford Explorer sport/utility vehicles. Numerous accidents and deaths in Explorers also are reported in the Middle East and Venezuela, where Mr. Nasser once headed Ford's operations. That's why the new law extends NHTSA's purview. If, for example, the government had known Firestone and Ford were having problems overseas, as has since surfaced, that might have provided an earlier alert - and recall - in the U.S., saving lives and reducing injuries.

Tread separation that can trigger rollovers, which repeatedly has occurred in Explorers equipped with Firestone ATX ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, is the chief culprit. Firestone recalled 6.5 million of those tires early in August, setting off a frenzy that promises to go on for years. But the law is not retroactive: Ford and Firestone escape any penalties on that score. The companies are expected to have replaced all of the questionable tires by the end of this month.

Still, who knew what and when - and what actions were taken or not taken - lies at the core of the controversy.

Ford doesn't miss a chance to proclaim that Explorer is safer than most other SUVs, blaming Firestone for shipping bad tires. Firestone counters that Ford didn't take its advice to specify 30 psi (pounds per square inch) in the tires, settling for 26 psi for a softer ride and greater stability. The higher the psi, the lower the tire's temperature - making it less prone to tread separation in high-speed driving or warm climates, both factors in accidents stateside and abroad.

Without admitting it erred, Ford subsequently recommended 30 psi as the brouhaha escalated, a clear implication in Firestone's eyes that it was right all along.

So what we wind up with is two legendary companies, tied together ever since Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone became close friends nearly a century ago, at odds over who's to blame. It's undoubtedly especially painful for Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr.: He is the great-grandson of both men.

And closing in are the legal vultures, who smell billions in the offing and more billions as NHTSA's strategy under the new law unfolds between now and 2002.

The Ford/Firestone firestorm is loaded with ironies. A sampling:

* JacNasser was riding high before the recall marred his winning streak. Despite tremendous heat, he moved to shore up Ford's European operations by closing plants and otherwise tackling costs.

He had presided over a string of new-model introductions, winning wide praise. And he helped engineer a Ford stock/cash deal aimed at shoring up its sickly performance on Wall Street.

He blundered by at first declining to appear before Congress to explain Ford's position. His star continued to plummet as things got worse. An avowed stickler for details, somehow the word on the faulty Firestones didn't reach him until it was too late.

If he did have a heads-up, then he has only himself to blame. More likely he didn't. In the broad range of responsibilities a man in his position faces each day, the potential danger Ford faced could have slipped through the bureaucratic cracks. But that's no excuse, as he has learned to regret. I suspect it's not likely to happen again.

* Ford might have averted the problem if, like General Motors Corp. has been doing for about three years, it warranted tires for materials and workmanship (GM's tire suppliers still handle road hazard and other types of mishaps). GM sources say tires were added to its "bumper-to-bumper" warranty to reduce consumer confusion and, importantly, to gather information on its own relating to performance, warranty claims and other data.

It may behoove Mr. Nasser to follow GM's lead - and for the same reasons. If he'd had Ford's own tire warranty information instantly available on his desktop computer, he could not argue, as he has, that the No. 2 automaker had difficulty in getting the straight scoop from Firestone.

* Ford and Firestone have spent tons on advertising shouting their positions, but neither has done anything as simple - and PR positive - as explaining how drivers can avoid accidents even when treads separate.

"All Ford has to do," a respected liability engineer tells WAW, "is to put a short video in every glovebox showing how to handle the vehicle in a catastrophic blowout. It would warn against braking - that's the worst thing you can do - and show that by simply holding the steering wheel firmly and letting the vehicle slow down, you can steer it off the road. It can be demonstrated that this works."

Indeed, that same advice is published in Ford's owner's manuals, which most people don't read.

As Jac Nasser so fully understands, it's the details that count.