NHTSA to Initiate Consumer Awareness Campaign on Tire Age – No Standard Needed

NHTSA to Initiate Consumer Awareness Campaign on Tire Age – No Standard Needed.    

No surprise that NHTSA isn’t going to regulate tire age – but now that agency plans to initiate a consumer awareness campaign about tire aging after years of research data showing that aging can present a safety problem particularly in the high heat states.

NHTSA has (again) announced that it will not create a safety standard based on tire age.  In a recently released report NHTSA stated “At this time, the agency does not believe it is necessary for motor vehicle safety to add a tire aging requirement to its light vehicle tire standard.”  The basis for this decision was that revised safety standards promulgated following the passage of the TREAD Act in 2000 made tires more robust.  The agency also claimed that “light vehicle tires are performing better on the road as reflected in our most recent crash data” and that “TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) on light vehicle tires since 2007 has helped alert consumers to underinflation that is also known to degrade tires faster.”

This comes as no surprise to veteran NHTSA watchers and those who have followed the tire age debate during the past decade. 

“The real problem associated with aged tires and aged tire failures is rooted not in the lack of a new test regimen, but in the tire labeling and manufacturers unwillingness to adequately educate dealers and motorists about when tires should be removed from service” said Sean Kane, President of Safety Research & Strategies, a long-time advocate for addressing tire aging hazards. 

It is undisputed that tire age is a factor in tire safety.  NHTSA research data has shown for years that tire aging can present a safety problem particularly in the high heat states.

In November 2004 Safety Research & Strategies petitioned NHTSA to initiate rulemaking to require a consumer-friendly date of manufacture molded into tire sidewalls and requested a Consumer Advisory. SRS’ petition requested that tire labeling rulemaking commence separately from the tire performance standards.  The agency denied this petition and the result was the continuation of an antiquated and unknown date code buried in the Tire Identification Number (TIN).  SRS reiterated its request in 2006 for the issuance of a Consumer Advisory when NTHSA was modifying the TIN requirements.  In a 2012 submission to NHTSA, SRS again asked for a requirement that tire manufacturers use a non-coded date of manufacture, mounted on both sidewalls so that consumers can easily determine the age of a tire and follow the age recommendations of auto and tiremakers. The agency did neither an advisory nor rulemaking on labeling and again allowed the industry to continue with a virtually indecipherable code to the dis-benefit of consumer safety. 

Nearly 20 years ago, automakers, such as Toyota and Volkswagen, first acknowledged that tires have limited service life – regardless of use or tread depth and that aged tires increased the risk of failure. In their 1990 owners’ manuals, foreign automakers warned motorists against the use of tires older than 6 years.  These advisories followed studies published in Germany in the late-1980s that found a disproportionate number of tire failures in tires older than 6 years.  Throughout that decade, tire age notices spread to many other vehicle manufacturers’ manuals, but the issue received little attention until federal investigations into the ATX and Wilderness tires showed that they were more likely to fail after several years in service. In the last few years, tiremakers Continental, Michelin, Bridgestone-Firestone, Yokohama and Cooper have also acknowledged that tires have limited service life and have issued Technical Bulletins specifying that all tires should be removed after 10 years regardless of the remaining tread depth. The bulletins also advised consumers to have their tires inspected annually once a tire reaches 5 years old.  Vehicle manufacturers and some tire associations have taken a stricter approach, recommending tire replacement after 6 years, regardless of tread depth. 

These guidelines are fairly useless without a fundamental change to the way a tire’s age is discerned. If you can’t find or understand the code, how will you know how old your tire is? The non-coded date of manufacture and the difficulty in locating the TIN hamstrings any conscientious consumer trying to follow them.

Aged tires, with acceptable tread and no significant visible signs of wear, find their way onto vehicles in a variety of ways: little or unused spares are rotated into service, consumers purchase used tires or buy a “new” tire that may have been sitting in inventory for 10 years, or consumers keep an old tire on a little-used vehicle.

This lack of visual indicators accounts for the continuing hazard of aged tires to consumers and service personnel, regardless of industry warnings and recommendations. It also underscores the need for a quick and easy way to determine a tire’s age. Consumers and service providers can’t adhere to safety guidelines, unless the tire age is readily accessible and understandable. Instead, they are left to decode the 11- or 12-symbol alphanumeric TIN. 

The result: Preventable death and injury crashes. SRS has provided NHTSA with a steady stream of catastrophic failures of tires that appear serviceable but have internal material degradation due to age and heat.  For their part, the manufacturers have settled hundreds of cases involving death and injury.  

Last year NHTSA’s Dr. Merisol Medri’s SAE presentation (click here for a copy) cited the following:

“Based on analysis of data from 2005-2007 including databases (NMVCCS, GES, CDS), 90 fatalities and over 3,200 injuries occurred annually as the result of crashes that were probably caused by tire aging or where tire aging was a significant factor.”

While NHTSA’s taken its position on tire age rulemaking, the non-regulatory National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) earlier this year announced its first tire safety investigation that will examine tire age and recalled tires (also the subject of recent ABC Nightline story).   

According to Sean Kane “the public are still at risk because they have little or no information about a mostly invisible hazard. The tire industry, vehicle manufacturers, and NHTSA recognize that tire age degradation presents a hazard – even on tires that have little use. It’s past time to give consumers the same level of awareness and the tools to protect themselves.”