The Internet has once again emerged as a critical component in publicisingand helping to drive a big consumer issue - this time one of the largest tire recalls in US history.
Two weeks ago, Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million tires used on Ford Motor sport utility vehicles because of peeling tire treads. The tire maker and automaker both have used the Web to disseminate information to consumers, but it was Internet sleuthing by a whistle-blower that unmasked the depth of the tire tread problem and prompted the recall.
It was just about closing time on Friday, July 28, when Sean Kane, a research analyst at Strategic Safety LLC, a motor safety research and litigation firm based in Virginia, received an e-mail tip.
An automotive industry worker in Venezuela notified Kane of tire recalls in South America.
Kane then verified the tip at http://el-nacional.terra.com.ve - a Venezuelan newspaper's Web site. Over the weekend, he uncovered similar tire problems in Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Malaysia.
On July 31, he notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and then posted a demand for a US recall on his firm's Web site.
Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone issued the voluntary recall of its Radial ATX and ATX II and Wilderness AT tires 10 days later. Before the US recall, Ford had offered to replace Firestone tires for free to customers in six other countries. But Ford officials blamed tire problems abroad on other issues.
In the past three weeks, an NHTSA investigation of reports of accidents involving Firestone tires revealed a growing problem. As of last month, there were four known deaths in such accidents. The investigation has since turned up reports of more than 62 fatalities and more than 100 injuries in crashes that were the result of skids when treads peeled off the casings of the now recalled tires.
The Web proved to be a vital tool for grassroots consumer communication during previous recalls. After Ford recalled defective ignition switches on 8.7 million vehicles four years ago, Web sites such as www.flamingfords.com emerged as resources and as places for people to share information.
"We're using the Web as a way for consumers to find us and for us to find them," said Kane. "Once we had the information, we were able to act almost instantaneously, and given the numbers of accidents and injuries, we hope it has reduced the number of lives lost due to this problem." Ford, too, has turned to the Web to educate customers. Company officials said www.ford.com received 1.5 million hits during the first eight days of the recall. The site normally receives an average of 2 million hits per month.
Ford has also run banner ads about the recall on popular Web portals like Yahoo, America Online, MSN and iVillage.
But California-based Keynote Systems, a company that monitors Web usage, has given Firestone/Bridgestone's Web site mixed reviews on accessibility. Keynote said www.bridgestone-firestone.com was down for 15 hours the day of the recall, but performance returned to 96% availability by last Thursday.
A spokeswoman for Bridgestone/Firestone said she had no comment.