NHTSA Grants SRS Request: Opens Investigation into Ford OEM Valve Stems

Reprinted from The Safety Record, V5, I5

Washington, D.C. - Less than two weeks after Safety Research & Strategies requested the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open a defect investigation into Chinese tire valve stems used as OEM equipment in some Ford vehicles, the Office of Defects Investigation has complied.

On September 25, SRS President Sean Kane sent a letter to Daniel Smith, NHTSA's Associate Administrator for Enforcement, asking him to widen the current probe on prematurely cracking rubber snap-in valve stems manufactured by Shanghai Baolong / Topseal Automotive to include Ford vehicles which also used the Topseal stems. On October 14, ODI opened a Preliminary Evaluation (PE08-060) into more than a million Topseal stems on Ford vehicles, citing the possibility that they may crack due to poor ozone resistance, leading to tire damage and a possible loss-of-control crash.

The valve stems have been under investigation since May 15, when NHTSA opened a preliminary evaluation into the safety of model TR413, a 1.25 inch valve stem for a 0.453 inch rim hole, which is frequently installed as replacements in tires as they are serviced or replaced. In April, Shanghai Baolong's American branch, Dill Air Control Products, reported the defect to the agency, telling NHTSA that valves, manufactured from July 2006 to November 2006, may leak from cracks caused by ozone exposure. The meeting was prompted by a lawsuit filed by the family of a fatal crash victim, alleging that the crash was caused by a defective tire valve stem.

On November 11, Robert Monk of Orlando, Fla. died when the right rear wheel of his 1998 Ford Explorer failed, triggering a rollover crash. The tire failure was linked to a cracked Dill TR413 valve stem manufactured by Dill Air Control Products. In March, the Monk family filed suit against the Oxford, North Carolina firm.

Dill also sent a Technical Bulletin to major tire retailers advising them that the company had received complaints of surface cracks appearing on the outside of the rubber near the rim hole in several models: TR 413, TR 413 chrome, TR 414, and TR 418 Dill ACP valve stems. "When the rubber is exposed to high levels of ozone as it is being stressed, surface cracks can appear. High speeds and an unsupportive rim profile allow the rubber valve to flex at a greater angle and may cause these cracks to propagate, leading to a slow leak of air," the bulletin said. Dill has yet to issue a recall.

In June, Tech International, a distributor based in Johnstown, Ohio, filed a defect report claiming that an estimated 8,600 out of 6 million TRI413 valve stems, manufactured by Shanghai Baolong between July and November 2006 were affected. On September 22, the agency upgraded the Dill valve stem investigation to an Engineering Analysis based on a total of 28,000 reports of cracked tire valve stems.

SRS was persuaded by other evidence that the cracked valve stem problem was probably just as acute in Ford vehicles which used Topseal valve stems as OEM equipment. A small field survey found prematurely cracked TR414 valve stems on 2007 Ford models throughout the U.S., all bearing the Topseal symbol on the base of the stem. In fact, the failure modes appeared to be identical to those identified in the Dill-labeled models. In addition, SRS's independent analysis of the agency's complaint records showed that Ford was a standout among OE valve stem failure complaints, with 35 unique vehicle reports alleging valve stem failures on 2007 and 2008 Ford vehicles.

In its appeal to NHTSA, Kane argued that the agency should widen the scope of its investigation, because the true extent of the problem would most likely be much larger than the complaint data suggested. Ford vehicle owners would be more likely to take their leaking tire problems to a local tire shop instead of a Ford dealer, thus depressing the number of warranty claims or repairs documented by Ford shops. Further, tire-related consumer claims presented to vehicle dealers are frequently referred to local tire dealers who sell the subject tire brand and model.

Kane noted:

Underreporting valve stem complaints is a significant issue. Even now after media coverage of the issue and the agency's investigation, many tire shops are still unaware of the defect. If a customer presents a tire to a service shop that is leaking and the service professionals determine the leak is from the stem, it is almost always replaced without further inquiry. Because rubber snap-in valve stems are inexpensive commodities that have generally performed well for many decades, a potential defect trend is not part of the conversation. We have contacted many tire and service shops around the country and continue to find that the valve stem issue is largely undocumented -- even in shops that have seen an increase in valve stem cracking.

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., 2008

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