Decoding NTSB’s Tire Safety Report

Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board issued findings and recommendations following a 10-month long investigation into tire safety. The effort was launched after two February 2014 two deadly tire-related crashes in Louisiana and Florida. (The latter crash involved an uncaptured recalled BF Goodrich tire and the former an 11-year old Michelin Cross Terrain.) In December 2014, the NTSB followed up with a tire safety symposium to gather testimony from industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, advocates such as Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, and researchers.

The final report, which will be released in the coming weeks, is focused on two key issues – the tire recall system and tire age degradation (service life). Tuesday’s hearing provided a pretty sturdy outline of the NTSB’s major conclusions. It amounted to a long-ignored to-do list for the regulated and the regulators (nine recommendations for NHTSA and two for industry) like implementing a web-based TIN look-up database and having the complete TIN on both the inboard and outboard sidewalls of a tire.

Board Vice Chair Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr crystalized the tire safety problem with a simple question to the NTSB staff: Why tire techs can’t determine if a tire was recalled? 

And the answer is because no one has built the systems to do this, is best summarized in two of the NTSB’s most important and intertwined conclusions:

  • A computerized system for capturing, storing, and uploading tire registration information would expedite the tire registration process, reduce transcription errors, and encourage more dealers to register tires at the point of sale.
  • The guidance provided by the tire and automotive industries regarding tire service life and the risks associated with tire aging can be inconsistent and confusing, which may lead consumers to make inappropriate tire replacement decisions.

In other words, the tire identification and recall system, which have relied on manual review of hard to find information, must be automated in order to alert techs – and consumers – to tire service life recommendations and recalls. With automated tire tracking, these critical elements of tire safety come together, and service techs can tell a consumer with the swipe of a scanner if a particular tire is recalled and if it’s at the end of its service life – in addition to the typical visual inspection for tread and condition. No complex internet searching and document review, crawling under a tire to capture the full TIN, or pawing through desk drawers for ten-year-old tire technical bulletins – just useful safety information, in real time, quick and easy.

The industry stakeholders preferred to focus elsewhere.

According to Tire Business, the Rubber Manufacturers Association was as happy as clam: “Daniel Zielinski, RMA senior vice president-public affairs, said his association found it encouraging that the NTSB agreed with a number of the RMA’s recommendations, especially tire registration by dealers, recall search engines based on TIN lookups, and consumer education.”

(Although, having the TIN on both sides is the kind of suggestion that makes the RMA very cranky, having successfully fought off NHTSA’s attempts to require it since 1970.  But the RMA is totally in favor of recommendations that require others to assume their responsibilities like a TIN lookup and tire registration.)

And Roy Littlefield, vice president of the Tire Industry Association fretted about an NTSB recommendation to require all tire dealers to register tires at the point of sale. According to Tire Business: “I can’t believe this industry thinks that the best solution to this problem is to hand it over to a government agency,” he said. “This is 2015, not 1982. We have technology that works. To go back to that archaic system would be a disaster.”

Safety Research & Strategies, which has been studying the gaps in the tire recall system and the hazards of aged tires has long advocated for machine readability of tires as a practical way for tire techs and consumers to quickly determine a tire’s recall status and age. Regardless of the changes made to the tire registration system and the plethora of tire service life recommendations, without the ability to scan a tire, there is no efficient way for  service professionals or consumers to determine if a specific tire is recalled or is old enough to be replaced. No doubt, the recommendations for a TIN lookup website and full TINs on both sides of the tire would make it easier (also advocated by SRS), but tire techs and consumers still need to translate the 11 Alpha-numeric characters from each tire accurately into a computer. This is a task fraught with error and isn’t practical in a shop environment. Given the cost-effective and available technology – from RFID to laser-etched QR codes – and the magnitude of the safety issues at stake when recalled and aged tires stay in service, tire scan-ability is where the industry already headed. Most tire makers have added that feature to some lines of tires.  In June 2013, Kumho Tire Co. Inc. announced it would put RFID tags in all of its tires.

The NTSB also appeared to discount NHTSA’s contention that tires that met the new FMVSS 138 and 139 were so robust, that no rulemaking on tire aging was required. In March 2014, NHTSA released Tire Aging: A Summary of NHTSA’s Work, in which the agency announced that it had no plans to turn its tire aging research into a regulation. NHTSA cited 2007 through 2010 stats that purported to show a 35 percent reduction in tire crashes; a 50 percent reduction in fatalities; and a 42 percent reduction in injuries (11,005 to 6,361) when compared with annual averages from 1995 through 2006. A January 2015 study, sponsored by non-profit The Safety Institute, disputed that claim. It found that the number of tire-related crashes and resulting deaths has remained relatively constant since 1995. At the December 2014 tire symposium study co-author Randy Whitfield told the NTSB that the agency’s conclusions were based on a survey with a small sample size of crashes involving light passenger vehicles towed for tire-related damage, rather than evaluating all tire-related crashes.

NTSB concluded: “Further research is needed to confirm that the implementation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard Nos. 138 and 139 has substantially reduced the risk of tire-aging, related crashes, injuries, and fatalities.”

Improvements to tire safety have long been stalled by the intransigence of the RMA, which puts all of its efforts into keeping the status quo firmly in place and NHTSA, which has not mustered the energy to overcome it. The NTSB has no authority to implement policy – but its pronouncements are influential. And here’s hoping that this round of safety recommendations gets the process moving.

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