Will the UK Be the First with a Tire Age Rule?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had an open rulemaking docket on tire age degradation (i.e., thermo-oxidative aging) since 2003, but will the UK beat the U.S. to actual tire age legislation? Frances Molloy isn’t in an international race, but she is determined to see Great Britain adopt a tire age policy sooner rather than later. Molloy’s 18-year-old son Michael perished in September 2012 along with another 23-year-old passenger and the driver in a bus crash caused by the catastrophic failure of a 19-and-a-half-year-old tire. The tire had been purchased secondhand by Merseypride Travel, which owned the 52-seat coach. It had legal tread depth, but was older than Michael.

“The risk to life from old tires -- no one can put a price on that. It’s been complete devastation,” says Molloy of the impact on her family. Michael, a promising musician, was on his way home after attending a musical festival in the Isle of Wight. “He was only 18 -- there was no other reason for the crash in the inquest -- other than the tire.”

Molloy, forensic crash investigator David Price and Surrey Coroner Richard Travers are campaigning to change the laws in Great Britain to prevent another such crash. In July, Travers formally announced that he would be writing a rule-43 report to alert the Secretary of State for Transport to the threat aged tires pose to public health. Travers’ report gives the Secretary a matched set. Three years ago, the Gloucestershire coroner did the same, after the 2009 death of Nazma Shaheen, whose crash was tied to the failure of a 13-year-old tire.

On November 20, Molloy and Price met with Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin, who reports directly to the Prime Minister. He assured her a response in two weeks.

“What I proposed to the government was to do something to change the MOT [Ministry of Transport] certificate so that tires over six years are not fitted and anything over 10 years are scrapped regardless of outward condition,” Molloy says.

Vehicles older than three years driven on public roads must pass the MOT test for safety, crashworthiness, and emissions annually. Molloy is focusing on a tire age regulation for commercial public transportation vehicles, like motorcoaches, because the public has no control over their fitness.  

Molloy says that the government needs to start with an assessment of the hazard.

 “This isn’t a one-off,” she says. “Unfortunately, because we do not collect the data, we don’t know how big the problem is,” she says. “The Secretary of State’s office was not aware of the problem until this case, which is quite shocking really.”

The industry, of course, has known about the problems of aging rubber for at least 80 years. Technical papers going back to the 1930s have noted the phenomenon of tire age degradation. In the 1980s, German researchers linked internal thermo-oxidative aging to tire performance. Two independent studies, using different data sets, concluded that tires failed at a greater rate after six years and recommended manufacturers alert consumers in an effort to prevent potential crashes. In 1989, Germany’s consumer advocacy organization, ADAC, tested 23 unused spare tires, from five to 12 years old, on a high-speed bench to determine the level of safety reserves over time.  The organization concluded: “Even tires that are just six years old – though they appear to be brand new – can present a safety risk. Tire experts even say that if they are not used, indeed, tires age more quickly.”

In the early 1990s A number of vehicle manufacturers including BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Nissan Europe and GM Europe, responded with warnings to consumers in owner's manuals that tires older than six years should only be used in an emergency and replaced as soon as possible. In June 2001, the British Rubber Manufacturers Association (BRMA) issued a recommended tire aging practice which noted that infrequent use could accelerate the aging process.  The BRMA also noted that tire age degradation didn’t always exhibit external signs, and “even an inspection carried out by a tire expert may not reveal the extent of any deterioration.”

“BRMA members strongly recommend that unused tyres should not be put into service if they are over 6 years old and that all tyres should be replaced 10 years from the date of their manufacture.”

U.S. regulators became interested in the issue after the 2000 Ford Explorer/Firestone Wilderness tire debacle. In 2001, at the direction of Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Ford embarked on a series of experiments to create an artificial oven-aging test for tires. In 2007, the agency reported 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.”

“We have accumulated a great store of scientifically-determined, credible knowledge about tire age. But neither the EU nor the US has translated any of it into policies, regulations – or at least education programs – directed at tire technicians or the public,” said Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane, who has been a vocal advocate on the issue for a decade. “In the U.S., regulators have even missed the opportunity to write rules making it easier for the public to identify the age of their tires.” 

One option in the UK is to amend the annual MOT test and require the removal of aged tires.  Instead, good policy has been deferred, consumer awareness campaigns follow wrenching scenes of roadside havoc, and in Great Britain, at least, the message spreads one coroner at a time.

After Michael’s death, “Rise and Fall,” a song he recorded with a friend, entered the Top 40 singles charts in Great Britain at number 38. The Liverpool Music Awards honored his memory in August with The Michael Molloy Ones To Watch Award, which was given to a band composed of members 16 to 21 years old. These accolades, while welcome, pale to Frances Molloy’s goal of preventing the need for posthumous tributes to victims of tire-age-related crashes. She plans to follow up by lobbying the commercial coach industry to change their tire safety practices and replace old tires.

“I intend to keep going. Unless I get the result I’m looking for, I will keep pursing this. It’s too important,” says Molloy. “I’ve got nothing to lose. This is completely catastrophic. How are they going to respond to another mum and another crash? I do feel there will be something done. We’ll just have to hope. That’s really the bottom line.” 

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