On July 3, 2010, three generations of the Taylor family were returning from a family vacation in Disneyland to their home in Phoenix, when the right rear tire on their 2003 Chevy Trailblazer experienced a catastrophic tread separation. John Taylor, a retiree who worked all 38 years of his career at General Motors, lost control of the vehicle on I-10, about 45 minutes from home. The Trailblazer rolled over, fatally crushing Taylor and killing his 8-year-old grandson Quinn Levi, who was ejected when the third-row seat belt unlatched. Taylor’s wife, Eileen, his son-in-law, Bill, and his daughter Susanne Levi, who bought the Trailblazer with her father’s employee discount, suffered upper body injuries. The youngest son, secured in a child safety seat, was unharmed.
The tire that failed was a seven-year-old full-sized spare that had been rotated into service in 2007. Before that, it stayed stored in the spare well, right up near the engine exhaust system, where the hot exhaust pipe, combined with the brutally hot climate of Phoenix, accelerated the thermo-oxidation of the BF Goodrich Rugged Trail tire, diminishing its strength.
“This was the perfect storm” says Phoenix attorney Curt Clausen, who represents the Taylor-Levi family in a civil lawsuit against manufacturer General Motors.
But you don’t have to be a professional forecaster to have seen this particular storm coming – you just needed to keep abreast of tire aging science, or be a giant automaker who knew that some large vehicle manufacturers had warned U.S. consumers in 2005 to replace their tires after six years, joining others that started publishing tire aging recommendations in the 1990s, or a manufacturer that warned its customers about tire age in Europe, but not the U.S. You’d have to be…General Motors, which has done all three. (GM began warning its customers overseas in the early 1990s. A warning in the Wheels and Tyres section of the 1991 Vauxhall Astra and Astra Belmont Driver's Manual, reads, “Tyres age even if they are used only very little or not at all. A spare wheel which has not been used for six years should be used only in emergencies; drive slowly when using such tyres.”)
Recently, GM became the last of the American automakers to add a tire age warning to the owner’s manuals of its 2013 U.S. models. It says:
“The rubber in tires ages over time. This also applies to the spare tire, if the vehicle has one, even if it is never used. Multiple factors including temperatures, loading conditions, and inflation pressure maintenance affect how fast aging takes place. GM recommends that tires, including the spare if equipped, be replaced after six years, regardless of tread wear. The tire manufacturer date is the last four digits of the DOT Tire Identification Number (TIN) which is molded into one side of the tire sidewall. The first two digits represent the week (01–52) and the last two digits, the year. For example, the third week of the year 2010 would have a four-digit DOT date of 0310.”
Ford Motor Company and then-DaimlerChrysler inserted tire age warnings to their owner’s manuals in 2005. At the time, GM’s absence was so conspicuous, they released a statement defending the omission. It says, in part:
“General Motors engineers work with suppliers to develop tires specific to each GM vehicle’s needs and specifications. All tires must pass an extensive battery of qualifications that make up GM’s ‘Tire Performance Criteria. This involves more than 20 critical performance specifications, including a test that accelerates a tire’s aging process.
‘The fact is that most tires wear out before they age out,’ said James Gutting, director of GM’s Tire and Wheel Laboratory in Milford, Mich.
When it comes to tire aging, GM specifically alerts customers to any unique case where excessive aging might occur before the tire wears out. The three main contributors to premature aging are high temperatures, high speed and heavy loads. Where nothing suggests aging to be excessive, we do not recommend replacing tires after a certain number of years.
‘We recognize that tires do age, and we are participating in studies that are trying to get a better understanding of the issue,’ Gutting said. ‘The customer operating environment for the main aging factors varies greatly, and that makes it difficult to select a specific age when tires should be replaced.’”
So, tell us, GM, what studies did you do? The rubber industry has been doing studies for at least 80 years on thermo-oxidative aging. Or did you wait for the studies you did supporting a tire age warning on your UK models 21 years ago to drag themselves across the Big Pond and present themselves to you in the U.S.? What accounts for this change of heart? Clausen, who recently deposed David L. Wood, a retired GM tire and wheel engineer, who consults as a corporate representative, says he knows of no current plan to promulgate the recommendation beyond the pages of the 2013 owner’s manuals. There will be no public statement as there was five years ago to explain why it wasn’t adopting a tire age recommendation. There will be no mention on its website, as Ford does, Wood told Clausen.
This would leave the vast majority of its customers uninformed. Even members of the GM community – such as John Taylor and his family – would be left vulnerable to an entirely preventable crash.
“When an auto manufacturer incorporates a new safety feature (something above the industry standard), then it is considered ‘innovative,’” Clausen says. “So, in 2005, when the industry standard was to adopt a 6-year tire aging policy for the safety of consumers and GM refuses to join and, more particularly, refuses to conduct any testing or research to determine the appropriate aging standard in the intervening 7 years, what do you call GM? What is the appropriate antonym for “innovative”? Then, when GM finally adopts a 6-year tire aging policy, it has no intention of any retroactive application of the policy to protect owners of older GM vehicles. I am simply dumbfounded.”
The horrific end of a family vacation to Disneyland should remind the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – which has come to a dead stop on implementing any tire aging policies after conducting excellent research into tire aging or adopting a simple and accessible tire age format, the automakers, who believe that a warning tucked in an owner’s manual is sufficient, but don’t train their own techs or dealerships, and the tire industry, determined to cling to its fantasies about age having no bearing on a tire’s robustness: the inaction has real and tragic consequences.
The Taylor family should have returned from its vacation tired, but intact. Instead, a tire subjected to the intense heat of an enclosed space, a hot climate and a position adjacent to the exhaust was rotated into service on the idea that tread depth is the only indicator of a tire’s robustness. (Coincidentally, the location of the de-tread lined up exactly with the area on the spare that sat for four years next to the engine exhaust.) The Taylors lost the generational bookends of their family.
There is no excuse.