Tire Dealers Freak Out Over Consumer Education Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tire retailers are in the midst of an oh-my-gosh-the-sky-is-falling meltdown over a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tire maintenance public education program. Specifically, the retail arm of the tire industry is quivering over the possibility that groups outside of the industry would be tapped to run it.

The public tire maintenance campaign is a small part of a tire fuel efficiency program, included as an amendment in the Energy Bill of 2007. The inclusion of these requirements in the bill was hailed in many industry quarters as a "triumph" for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which lobbied hard for them. The amendment requires NHTSA to establish through the rulemaking process a tire fuel efficiency rating system and test specifications to assess tire fuel efficiency. Besides the tire maintenance consumer education campaign, the public outreach effort includes a requirement to provide tire fuel efficiency information to consumers, via the internet and retail locations.

NHTSA has not yet published a notice of proposed rulemaking but it is expected to be issued soon, says Karen Aldana, a NHSTA spokeswoman

"Once the notice comes out, everyone will have a chance to comment on it and raise their concerns," she said.

That hasn't stopped influential voices in the tire retail industry from hyperventilating over an apocalyptic future in which consumers do not receive Tire Industry Association-sanctioned information on tire safety. Roy Littlefield, the TIA's executive vice president, kicked off the panic with a lengthy screed in Modern Tire Dealer, published in late March.

"Let me ask you a question: Would you want your customers being educated about tires by trial lawyers? How about by so-called "safety experts" (I use the quotes here because we all know they are really not as concerned with true safety as they are with feathering their own nests, or the nests of their "birds of a feather," the trial lawyers)? Would public watchdog groups be more to your liking? Or, how about environmental extremists? Better yet, how about if the government did it?"

"I don't think I'm going out on a limb here by assuming that the answers to these questions would be a resounding "No!" But, that's essentially what could happen if we don't come together as an industry and unite NOW."

Littlefield then issued a call to arms for tire retailers to seize control of the public education program to maintain the status quo.

Tire Review followed up with a less hysterical Viewpoints piece by Jim Smith, who conceded Littlefield's main point that Very Bad Things Will Happen if consumers advocates get their filthy mitts on the tire maintenance education program. He also advocated for the government to contract the program to the TIA, because, "It has the neutrality and the industry representation to do a fair job, and it has a basic plan already in place called TIRES - the tire check-off program it first offered some five years ago. With government money (because the program is legislatively mandated) and the right hires (TIA will need to staff up), TIA could do an admirable and certainly industry-

friendly job."

Singled for special derision was Safety Research & Strategies president and founder Sean Kane. Littlefield veiled his reference to Kane as one of the "so-called tire experts." Smith was more direct, dubbing him Sean "Old Tires Are Death" Kane.

Kane says that he approached Littlefield in 2003 when he first started researching the aged tire issue.  Kane's concern was the tire dealers were not getting appropriate guidance from manufacturers and were likely to end up unknowingly causing harm to consumers.  Littlefield and the TIA weren't interested, Kane said.

Instead, tire retailers have occupied themselves with building a bulwark against the slowly spreading consensus that tire age matters. Despite wave after wave of tire age recommendations from a few individual tiremakers and many major vehicle manufacturers, collectively, tiremakers opposed and continue to oppose efforts to develop a tire aging recommendation. They successfully fought off a 2003 proposed NHTSA regulation to address aging effects.  They have countered vehicle manufacturers tire age warnings with statements averring that there is no scientific support for a 6-year expiration date on tires. In 2006, the Rubber Manufacturers Association submitted to NHTSA the results of a scrap tire survey claiming chronological age doesn't determine tire service life.

And now Littlefield is pushing for the TIA to lobby for states to enact tire inspection laws that the trade group would write and testify for.

In the meantime, one has to give the tire dealers their props - they have not only ferreted out the vast left-wing conspiracy to educate consumers about tire aging they have published their own strategy to take control of a government program and make it "industry friendly."

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