NHTSA Gets Real on Tire Fatalities

Safety Fact: 733 is the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2016 in which a contributing factor was tire malfunction.

Safety Fiction: On average, 200 people die each year in tire-related crashes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration happens to be the purveyors of both tidbits, and the discrepancy is not just a matter of facts, it’s a matter of rulemaking and a matter of mixed messaging.

Texas Attorney Asks NHTSA for Tire Investigation

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent’s message to the defense bar a few months ago at a legal conference was pretty clear – keep us in the loop, or risk the consequences. NHTSA’s message to the plaintiffs’ bar has been more like radio silence, so it will be interesting to see what the Recall Management Division does with a request to investigate the failure of a tire distributor to recall a defective Chinese tire already recalled by a different distributor, marketing the same tire under a different brand name. 

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ABC Exposes Broken Tire Safety System

Yesterday, ABC’s Nightline and Good Morning America took two issues that Safety Research & Strategies has been chipping away at for a decade, and gave them big play: the broken tire recall system and tire age. Producer Cindy Galli and investigative reporter Brian Ross, working with reporters at local ABC affiliates, bought recalled and very old tires, told victims’ stories and skewered the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association.

The stories raised a number of key issues:

• The tire recall system doesn’t work: Recalled tires aren’t always caught by retailers and there is no quick, easy or efficient way for any consumer or tire technician to check the recall status of a tire.
• Aged tires are sold and put into service unknowingly because the date code is buried in the Tire Identification Number, and expressed in a non-standard format. Tire age recommendations by vehicle and tire makers are not well known to service professionals or consumers.
• The tiremakers’ trade group, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) has conceded that the tire recall system does need improvement, but continues to maintain that tire age has no bearing on safety, and has fought off regulations to keep old tires off the road.

ABC highlighted the National Transportation Safety Board’s first tire safety investigation into a February crash that killed two and injured seven members of the First Baptist Church in New Port Richey, Florida, when a two-year-old left rear recalled BF Goodrich tire suffered a tread separation. The tire had been recalled in July 2012. The NTSB is also investigating a second fatal incident involving an aged tire. With its investigative powers and advisory role to other regulatory agencies on safety policy, the NTSB’s recommendations have the potential to be a game-changer. Will the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration listen?

Antique Tires!

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.”

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.

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”: 

Another Domino Falls: GM Adds Tire Age Warning

On July 3, 2010, three generations of the Taylor family were returning from a family vacation in Disneyland to their home in Phoenix, when the right rear tire on their 2003 Chevy Trailblazer experienced a catastrophic tread separation. John Taylor, a retiree who worked all 38 years of his career at General Motors, lost control of the vehicle on I-10, about 45 minutes from home. The Trailblazer rolled over, fatally crushing Taylor and killing his 8-year-old grandson Quinn Levi, who was ejected when the third-row seat belt unlatched. Taylor’s wife, Eileen, his son-in-law, Bill, and his daughter Susanne Levi, who bought the Trailblazer with her father’s employee discount, suffered upper body injuries. The youngest son, secured in a child safety seat, was unharmed.

The tire that failed was a seven-year-old full-sized spare that had been rotated into service in 2007. Before that, it stayed stored in the spare well, right up near the engine exhaust system, where the hot exhaust pipe, combined with the brutally hot climate of Phoenix, accelerated the thermo-oxidation of the BF Goodrich Rugged Trail tire, diminishing its strength.

“This was the perfect storm” says Phoenix attorney Curt Clausen, who represents the Taylor-Levi family in a civil lawsuit against manufacturer General Motors.

Moving Tire Recalls into the 21st Century

Safety Research & Strategies has urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to add Tire Identification Numbers to a newly mandated web portal to identify recalls.

In September, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the possible changes to the provisions regarding Early Warning Reporting data. It also proposed requiring automobile manufacturers to submit Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) of specifically recalled vehicles, and maintain records of the recall remedy status of each specific vehicle. This was a requirement of the Motor Vehicle Safety Improvement Act, contained within the highway re-authorization bill known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, MAP-21, for short.

The recall statute mandates that NHTSA require that motor vehicle safety recall information be made available to the public on the Internet, and authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to require each manufacturer to do so. In the NPRM, NHTSA explained that it already had a website where consumers can look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number.  It proposed to simply add a VIN field to its current search capacity.

The authors of MAP- 21, however, forgot to require the same of tire manufacturers. SRS has submitted comments to this docket suggesting that the agency add a TIN-look-up, along with a VIN.

The omission is another sad chapter in the history of the Tire Identification Number (TIN) and tire safety. The Tire Identification Number has its origins in a Rubber Manufacturers’ Association strategy to seize the regulatory reins from the National Highway Safety Bureau, predecessor to NHTSA, as the tire identification standard was promulgated more than 40 years ago. It was established to help consumers identify tires in a recall. But, as is the case in many rulemakings, industry fought hard to mold the regulations to its own ends and convenience.

Changes to Recall Regs: A Ray of Sunshine!

When is a safety recall not really a safety recall?  When the manufacturer submitting the Part 573 Defect and Non-Compliance Report (49 CFR Part 573) says it isn’t.

The Recall Management Division’s files are dotted with many such non-admission admissions. For example, in February, Goodyear recalled nearly 41,000 of its Silent Armor Tires in six sizes. The company conceded that these tires had high rates of warranty and property damage claims, and that the tire’s lack of robustness could result in a partial tread separation and a crash. Three months earlier, two Texas college students died in a rollover crash, after the left rear Silent Armor tire on the pick-up truck suffered a tread separation.

Goodyear, however, “found no safety issues” and deemed its recall a “customer satisfaction campaign,” to NHTSA.

If NHTSA’s proposed changes to the recall regulations are eventually adopted, the practice of manufacturers making signing statements will end. The agency is also proposing to require automakers to file defect and non-compliance reports via the Internet, including notices of foreign recalls. The agency is proposing asking manufacturers to submit the specific Vehicle Identification Number for each recalled vehicle, so that consumers can search a recall by their vehicle’s specific VIN. Unfortunately, there appears to be no such provision for the Tire Identification Number (TIN). Manufacturers will continue to submit TIN ranges only, and there will be no Web portal, which the public can use to determine if a specific tire has been recalled.

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