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Editor's Notebook

Where’s The Smoking Gun???

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Police detectives call it "the smoking gun." It’s that key piece of absolutely indisputable evidence that seals the case.

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The smoking gun is the perfect counter to any argument of innocence. Yet finding that bit of evidentiary nirvana is not as simple as the name implies. Sometimes it takes some serious digging and rooting and sifting through microbits of data, slivers of seemingly unconnected information, fibers of possible truth.

And that’s where we are right now with the Ford-Bridgestone/Firestone situation. Sifting and probing and digging.

Meanwhile impatient and frustrated consumers – one columnist covering this debacle said Americans have the "attention span of a newt" – are voting hard with their wallets. You and I both know that despite how anyone wants to spin it, BFS and Ford sales are not too good right now. Explorer sales are down some 22% through the first five months of this year; BFS says Firestone brand sales are down, but not as bad as they expected. Perhaps they were expecting Armageddon.

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You see, while Americans might suffer from some attention deficit malady, we’re not stupid. And we’re not willing to put our lives – and those of loved ones – on the line just because some talking head says "our product is safe" while even circumstantial evidence indicates otherwise.

And that’s exactly the problem. Circumstantial evidence is all we have. Bar charts and pie charts and fancy graphs and paid-for studies and anecdotal statements and insurance group reports and attorney claims and PR releases and lawsuits and claims and counter-claims.

What we don’t have is exact, absolute, indisputable evidence – a smoking gun – why certain Firestone brand tires suffered tread separations on Ford Explorers.

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That, folks, is the bottom line. As sure as you’re sitting there, the smoking gun that will resolve this question of quality exists. It always does.

But it isn’t in either Dr. Sanjay Govindjee’s "independent" investigation or BFS’s own house study, both of which made extensive use of the words "might", "could" and "may" while suggesting possible scenarios under which the tires may have failed.

It obviously isn’t in Jac Nasser’s inane assertion that "this is a tire issue." Or in the government stats he waves about to support his claim that the Explorer is the safest vehicle on the planet. You know what they say about statistics.

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It isn’t in Dr. Dennis Guenther’s effect-focused research that shows only that certain Explorers might have a higher propensity to rollover if a tire separates.

It isn’t in Ford’s claims of quality being job one while it tumbles wildly in J.D. Power ratings, recalls more than eight million vehicles over the last 24 months, and its clearly one-sided OE relationships squeeze suppliers so hard that profits aren’t the only things to suffer.

It isn’t in any one of those things, or in the countless charts and graphs and statements and counter-statements Ford and BFS have flung back and forth like so many kindergarteners at a table full of Play-Doh.

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But, as they say on X-Files, the truth is out there. And until the truth is established, consumers will continue to play the safe card, and this entire industry – especially those waving the BFS banner – will suffer.

The smoking gun. That’s all we want. That’s all consumers want. That’s all the other tire companies want. And the dealers and distributors. Not to mention the regulators and legislators.

If there is something definitively wrong with the Explorer or the tires, exactly what is it? Or is it a one in a zillion convergence of circumstance and happenstance? An abnormal alignment of the planets?

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Consumers are clearly tired of not knowing what’s going on and who to trust, and the exodus to other vehicle and tire brands is well underway. As they say: Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you.

Most consumers don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, only what’s right and what’s wrong. That may not sound fair, but that’s human nature. There is no justice when it comes to the safety and comfort of one’s family – real or perceived. That’s the reality BFS and its dealers now have to face.

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Recall I was all about tire quality and, to a degree, the consumer’s role in tire safety. And it was not just a Firestone thing as the entire industry was put under the quality microscope.

During Recall I, BFS dealers did a good job keeping skeptical consumers on Firestones, and starting the process of confidence rebuilding. They didn’t win every battle, but they won enough.

And all tire dealers did a great job of educating consumers about tire care. At least now they’re paying some attention.

But Recall II has nothing to do with tire quality and consumer concern, and everything to do with pure unabashed spite.

This time BFS’s best allies – its dealers – have been eliminated from the equation by Ford. And even if Ford hadn’t excluded them, consumers may have.

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BFS talks glowingly about how its dealers have rallied behind the company, professing undying loyalty. Dealers talk down Ford, complain that BFS is getting the shaft, recount all the Explorers they’ve been underneath and all the tread seps they’ve never seen.

Without that smoking gun, neither can change the reality of what consumers think and feel. The cold hard reality is if consumers don’t want Firestones, then all the history and heritage doesn’t really matter. And, unfortunately, if customers stay away because of a dealer’s Firestone association, that dealer has a hard decision to make.

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I – and I think everyone in this industry – want the Firestone brand and BFS to survive this awful, painful public pilloring. It’s a great brand, a quality product sold by tremendous people who deserve better than this situation has brought on. Competitors and compadres alike will be that much weaker because of this mess.

But until the public has a real fact there will be no sense of closure and no feeling that it could never happen again. There will only be speculation and possibilities, and the inattentive will buy into whatever they see on ratings-driven news reports.

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After looking into the eyes of the frustrated consumers paraded across our TV screens, seeing pure exasperation, anger and fear, I understand their concerns over putting their families’ lives at risk when other alternatives exist. Frankly, I’d do the same. Because by the time someone could utter "I told you so," it would be far too late.

Americans, bless them, do have short attention spans. And long memories. They also have a high capacity to forgive a wronged party – even a remorseful party.

But you can’t have either without that smoking gun.

Thanks to Ford’s anti-BFS missile strike, the now clearly angry and frustrated public won’t be marching to their local BFS dealer for replacement tires this time.

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Proving there is some justice, they ain’t lining up at Ford dealerships, either.

Left with no smoking gun and fed up with the entire sordid "he said, she said" mess, they may not be back to either for some time.

I will say that at least BFS has fessed up to problems with its tires. At least the company has taken appropriate public action to correct its self-diagnosed problems. At least BFS is willing to accept some of the blame for this very unfortunate chapter. What about Ford?

Right now, we have to pin our hopes on finding that smoking gun in NHTSA’s investigation report, due out sometime this summer. And yet another round of Congressional hearings, which should’ve started by the time you read this.

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Keep in mind, this is the same government that can’t count how many people live in this country. And speaking of conclusive government investigations, anyone remember the Warren Report? In short: Don’t have high expectations.

Maybe now that it’s unshackled from its obedient servant role with Ford, maybe just maybe BFS can produce that smoking gun.

Because until there is one, this sad episode won’t come to an end.

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