The New York Times article "SUV Tyre Defects were Known in '96 but Not Reported" inaccurately describes Strategic Safety's work related to the Ford-Firestone tyre matter, the traffic safety consulting firm said in a statement.

Strategic Safety says the article is based on an incorrect premise - the NYT claimed that federal regulators and Ford were hampered in their efforts to identify Firestone tyre problems in the U.S. because lawsuits were not reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Times states, "Ford engineers were falsely reassured in 1999 when they checked the federal complaint database and found it virtually empty-because lawyers had not filed complaints."

This statement contradicts the facts, Strategic Safety retorted.

"The database was not virtually empty as the Times claimed," the statement said.

"A review of complaints publicly available from NHTSA on June 24, 1999, revealed 36 complaints of tyre failures on Ford Explorers and Rangers - nearly all of the incidents we were aware of (certainly more than the two that Ford claims were available).

"Neither Ford nor anyone else would have been hampered by the lack of lawsuit complaints filed with the agency as Ford was a defendant in most of these publicly filed claims."

The organisation added that, additionally, by 1999 Ford had already recalled vehicles overseas to replace the defective tyres.

Strategic Safety began investigating the issue in 1996, the statement said. It was not until 1998 that approximately 30 cases had been identified. These cases consisted of lawsuits and complaints filed with NHTSA - all of which were publicly accessible.

As soon as the problem began to emerge as a trend in 1998 the complaints were brought to the attention of the national media.

The statement said that The Times also makes an unsupported claim that Strategic Safety was attempting to "publicise the problem without drawing in government investigators" - a difficult task considering reporters normally seek NHTSA comment on such stories and frequently ask why the agency isn't investigating.

"Publicising a safety-related matter is an important way to alert consumers of NHTSA and its complaint hotline, which in turn provides the agency with the information needed to initiate investigations," the firm's statement said.

"The claim made by the Times that 'regulators made little progress in the Firestone investigation until last summer, when they enlisted another safety consultant, Ralph Hoar, to persuade lawyers to share information about tyre failures' is at best uninformed.

"Not only was Strategic Safety regularly discussing its findings with the agency months before its investigation was opened in May 2000, it was our findings and public disclosure on July 31, 2001 of Ford's Firestone tyre recall in Venezuela that outraged the nation and pushed Ford and Firestone to initiate a similar recall in the U.S. only a week later.

"The facts clearly show that Ford and Firestone were very aware of the dangers of these tyre defects long before NHTSA, safety researchers, and the American public," the Strategic Safety statement concluded.

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