NTSB to Release Long-Awaited Tire Safety Recommendations

In February 2014, there were two tragic, fatal, and high-profile tire crashes on U.S. highways that might very well constitute a tipping point for tire safety.

One involved an 11-year-old Michelin Cross Terrain tread separation on a 2004 Kia Sorrento that led to a crash into a school bus carrying 34 members of a Louisiana high school baseball team in Centerville, La. Four of the Kia occupants died, and the fifth was severely injured. Thirty of the bus passengers suffered injuries.

Tire Age Crusade in UK Begins

Advocacy has always been a long game. Frances Molloy, the mother of a young British musician who died in a bus crash caused by a the failure of a 19-year-old tire, has met her first hurdle in a letter from the Secretary of State for Transport, declining to take any immediate action to limit the age of tires fitted on commercial buses.

Secretary Patrick McLoughlin held out the possibility of a more comprehensive action “including - possibly - through the imposition of restrictions on the use of tyres above a certain age via the existing vehicle inspection regime,” but said more research needed to be done.

“He’s given a lot of words,” Molloy says. “There’s nothing in this response. It’s just basically, I will commission research. Research is a delaying tactic. It’s stalling. We already know tires have a shelf life.”

McLoughlin met with Molloy and David Price, an expert in crash forensic analysis, on November 20 to talk about policy responses to the death of 18-year-old son Michael Molloy, who died in September 2012 with another 23-year-old passenger and the driver in a bus crash caused by the catastrophic failure of a tire with legal tread depth, but was 19-and-a-half-year-old. The tire had been purchased secondhand by Merseypride Travel, which owned the 52-seat coach. Michael’s death has resulted in posthumous honors involving his passion for music, but Frances Molloy is aiming for a comprehensive policy change.

McLoughlin’s letter to Maria Eagle, a member of the House of Commons representing the Molloy’s neighborhood in Liverpool, makes clear that the rubber industry’s reluctance to acknowledge its own long-held technical research on the relationship between rubber age and robustness took precedence. McLoughlin wrote:

“Although research is limited, it is clear to me that the association between the age of a tyre and its structural integrity is not fully understood. I noted the advice that Mr Price provided in our meeting but also recognise that the tyre industry suggests that other factors such as the maintenance of correct inflation pressures, regular use, and inspection for damage are more critical than a single limit on the age of a tyre. I have noted research from the USA that indicates artificially-aged tyres can fail safety tests but also note that their study replicated conditions of high ambient temperature and therefore cannot necessarily be directly related to conditions of use found here in the UK.”

Thoroughly Modern Tire Dealer – Not.

Bob Ulrich’s column If the TIA is the Puppet Master is NHTSA the Puppet? in February 14ths Modern Tire Dealer, casts me as an impatient crusader who has single-handedly ginned up a non-existent controversy about the dangers of tire age and used tires in the service of trial lawyers.

The issue of tire age surfaced in the U.S. in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone Wilderness ATX. In 2003, NHTSA fulfilled a Congressional mandate by initiating a tire age rulemaking, which sought manufacturers’ comments. The industry did not exactly distinguish itself. Its responses ranged from denial of any problem to ignorance of testing, analysis or the very concept of tire age.

Our research showed that industry was studying rubber oxidation and heat as early as the 1930s. We also located a pair of German studies from the 1980s which concluded that tires failed at a greater rate after six years and recommended manufacturers alert consumers to prevent potential crashes. We identified the vehicle and tire makers who followed that advice, publishing tire age recommendations as early as the 1990s. Not one industry representative alerted the agency to wealth of information it had about tire age.   

Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear

Is it time for Goodyear to just give up the ghost on the G159 tire? Sure, they had a good run for a while, selling the tire to the motor home industry – even though the tire was designed for urban delivery vehicles and speed-rated for only 65 mile per hour continuous use. And when those tires failed on motor homes, causing rollovers, catastrophic injuries, deaths and lawsuits, Goodyear had a good run limiting the damage by keeping the damning documents from spreading from one litigant to another – or just keeping them to themselves. But their run seems to be about done, for the tire and the legal strategy.

The Chief Justice of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, Roslyn O. Silver, has issued a lengthy and devastating sanctions order against Goodyear, and attorneys Graeme Hancock of Fennemore Craig PC and Basil Musnuff formerly of Roetzel & Andress, who represented the tiremaker against the product liability claims lodged by the Haeger family.

 Judge Silver’s order starts like this:

“Litigation is not a game. It is the time-honored method of seeking the truth, finding the truth, and doing justice. When a corporation and its counsel refuse to produce directly relevant information an opposing party is entitled to receive, they have abandoned these basic principles in favor of their own interests. The little voice in every attorney's conscience that murmurs turn over all material information was ignored.”

It’s Tire Safety Week! Is There Anything to Celebrate?

In April, materials scientist John Baldwin bluntly schooled insiders at the annual Tire Industry Conference about things the rubber industry has known for decades from its own internal research. He pointed out that relying on tire tread depth to determine the viability of a tire is a bit of a crapshoot:

“In the tire industry, a lot of decisions are based on tread depth,” he said. “But what is the significance of tread depth? There is uneven wear on damn near every tire.”

He took note of the unsafe practice of rotating unused, but old spares onto vehicles:

“The average full-sized spare tire is nine years old,” he said. “You can tell your tire store to take that perfectly good spare tire and put it on your car. But if you’re in Yuma or Miami, do you really want that nine-year-old spare going on? “Meanwhile, the average mini-spare is 12 years old. That means you’re screwed.”

And he took exception to what he calls the Rubber Manufacturers Association’s (RMA) mischaracterization of his tire aging research for Ford Motor Company.

Tire Known Unknowns: Decoding the Date

Human Factors researchers at the State University of North Carolina have recently concluded that consumers can’t read the date of manufacture obscured by the week and month configuration dictated by the Tire Identification Number (aka the DOT number).

Researchers Jesseca Taylor and Michael Wogalter asked 83 test subjects to translate tire markings as represented by different date configurations, ranging from the conventional month/day/year (12/05/07) to the DOT code’s four-digit week-year (2205). Effect of Text Format on Determining Tires’ Date of Manufacture, accepted by Annual Proceedings of 55th Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, found that when consumers chose to translate the different four-digit representations into a month and year, they consistently failed to understand that the first two digits represented the week of manufacture.

The DOT number, an alpha-numeric code found on the tire sidewall, has consistently confused consumers and tire professionals. The last four characters of the 11-character code contain the week and year the tire was made. For example, 0302 signifies that the tire was made during the third week of 2002. (Tires made prior to 2000 used a three-digit date configuration at the end of the DOT code.  In those cases, 039 signifies that the tire was manufactured during the third week of 1999 – or the 1989.)  No participant in Taylor and Wogalter’s study correctly identified examples such as 03/01 or 1102. They confused the first two digits with the month itself, for example, identifying “03” as March, instead of realizing that the third week of the year falls in January.

Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged Into the Public Eye

Goodyear’s G159 and a Class-A Motor Home was always a bad match. The tire was designed for urban delivery vehicles and speed-rated for only 65 mile per hour continuous use.  Nonetheless, Goodyear had marketed the G159 to the RV industry for nearly a decade in the 1990s and 2000s, even though the tire design was prone to overheat on RVs that typically travel at greater speeds for extended periods. Goodyear knew it was dangerous for motor homes, but didn’t want lose a market segment. So, in 1998, after speed limits increased nationwide, Goodyear bumped the speed rating of the G159 to 75 miles per hour.

By 1999, there had been two recalls and one Product Service Bulletin to replace G159 tires on RVs, but the recalls blamed inadequate load margin and customer misuse, and did not identify the tire design itself as defective. In fact, Goodyear has consistently assured the public that the tires are safe for all uses.

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