Liberty Tire Gives Consumers Another Reason to Avoid Used Tires

In 2012, Kumho Tires notified NHTSA that it was recalling 40,769 SOLUS KH25 passenger car tires (size 225/45R17) due to sidewall cracking. At the time, nearly the entire recall population was in Kumho’s warehouses. Only 122 had actually been sold to customers; another 1,116 were in dealer’s inventories. But thanks to one of the nation’s biggest tire recyclers, Kumho has to recall them again.

On April 30, Kuhmo announced that it would now have to collect nearly 12,000 SOLUS KH25, because the national tire recycler that was supposed to scrap them resold them to used tire dealers. According the Defect and Noncompliance notice Kumho filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in early August 2012, the Vietnamese tire manufacturer paid Liberty Tire Recycling to dispose of 11,922 tires from its Itasca, Illinois warehouse. The tires slated for destruction had three holes drilled into in the tread surface – presumably to render them unusable. Instead, Liberty sold 7,875 tires to various tire wholesalers in Texas, New York, North Carolina and Puerto Rico.

On its website, Liberty proclaims itself as an environmental champion, turning more than 110 million scrap tires annually into the “raw materials for smart, sustainable products that improve people’s lives”: 

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.   

Tire Aging: Is NHTSA Ready to Make Policy?

Last month, at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual government-industry conference, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety standards engineer presented a summary of the agency’s tire aging work, which continues despite not producing any regulatory changes.

The issue that took center stage more than a decade ago, in the wake of the Ford Firestone rollover scandal. The deadly Firestone tires at the center of the controversy met the federal safety standards but nonetheless were de-treading at high rates after several years in service.  In 2001, Congress suggested that the agency consider the feasibility of a tire aging test, and the agency and Ford embarked on a series of experiments to create an artificial oven-aging test for tires. In 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users directed the Secretary of Transportation document NHTSA’s progress on tire aging research, and its findings and recommendations. The agency’s 2007 report to Congress did not make any policy recommendations, but did allow that it was “evaluating the feasibility of a regulation related to tire aging by analyzing the safety problem (tire aging as a significant causal factor in crashes) and potential benefits and costs of a requirement for minimum performance based on an aging method.”

Six years later, no policy and the tire aging docket NHTSA opened in 2005 is officially closed for comments. But the agency (and Safety Research & Strategies -- see SRS Tire Safety) continues to file the results of its tire age research periodically. (The most recent agency submission was in July 2012, a report entitled: “Tire Aging Testing Phase 5.”) Could NHTSA’s Dr. Merisol Medri’s SAE presentation herald the arrival of a rulemaking? Her Powerpoint was not released, (click here for a copy) but our ears perked up at this slide:

“Based on analysis of data from 2005-2007 including databases (NMVCCS, GES, CDS), 90 fatalities and over 3,200 injuries occurred annually as the result of crashes that were probably caused by tire aging or where tire aging was a significant factor.”

This statistic stands out against the agency’s numerical analysis offered in the 2007 Research Report to Congress on Tire Aging: “From 1994 to 2004, NHTSA estimates that about 400 fatalities, annually, may be attributed to tire failures of all types.”

Doing the rough math -- does this mean that about quarter of the annual tire-related fatalities are due to tire age? And, how did NHTSA arrive at that figure? Tire Identification Numbers (TIN) – the only way to discern a tire’s age – are not available in the public version of some of those datasets. (We are aware that NHTSA has begun to collect TINs for some sub-sets of crash data.) According to Medri the agency will be publishing a more detailed account of its research in a new report that will be published in the tire aging docket, at some unspecified time.

Will Manufacturers Kill the Used Tires Biz?

Tiremakers have long held the re-sale market at arms length, out of a healthy respect for the boundaries of anti-trust regulations.  But a number of factors are aligning that may shift the market away from the re-sale of used tires for vehicles. The cost of selling used tires is going up – the scrap market is growing in tandem with the demand for used tires to be recycled into fuel to meet the energy requirements of rising economies, such as China’s. At the same time, tire litigation is getting more sophisticated and manufacturers have a keener understanding of their liability.

In 2007, Safety Research & Strategies kick-started this shift by publishing Used Tires: A Booming Business with Hidden Dangers. The report made the link between crashes, tire age and used tires, using data to show that nearly one-third of aged tire crashes investigated involve used tires. It also noted that inspections by used tire wholesalers are cursory and lead to dangerous tires entering the market and recommended used tire sellers adopt higher standards that included visual reviews and internal examinations, such as shearography or X-rays.

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