NTSB to Release Long-Awaited Tire Safety Recommendations

In February 2014, there were two tragic, fatal, and high-profile tire crashes on U.S. highways that might very well constitute a tipping point for tire safety.

One involved an 11-year-old Michelin Cross Terrain tread separation on a 2004 Kia Sorrento that led to a crash into a school bus carrying 34 members of a Louisiana high school baseball team in Centerville, La. Four of the Kia occupants died, and the fifth was severely injured. Thirty of the bus passengers suffered injuries.

The other involved the failure of a recalled BF Goodrich tire that was on the left rear tire on a 2002 Ford 350 XLT 15-passenger on an interstate in Lake City, Fla. The driver lost control, and the van swerved onto an embankment and rolled over. Two adults died, and all of the other occupants, including several children, suffered injuries. The tire had been recalled for tread loss or rapid air loss from a tread-belt separation shortly after Sam’s Club put it on the vehicle in 2012. In November 2013, Sam’s Club mechanics inspected the tire, but failed to identify and remove it.

Deaths and injuries in crashes caused by aged and recalled tires are entirely preventable, but neither the tire industry nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been inclined to do anything to prevent them. On Tuesday, the public might finally see some leadership on this issue from the National Transportation Safety Board. The board is meeting to discuss its new report on tire-related passenger vehicle crashes, “and “the safety issues uncovered during these investigations and the December 2014 NTSB tire symposium.”

Within 10 months of those horrific crashes, the NTSB resolved to take up the issue of tire safety and convened, in lieu of formal hearings, a two-day tire symposium in which stakeholders presented information on tire age, the recall system, tire construction, technology and tire-related crash data. 

The symposium was notable, in part, for NHTSA’s decision to cite inaccurate tire data purporting to show that tire-related deaths and injuries have decreased by half since Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 139 was established, and the Board’s skepticism at the Rubber Manufacturers Association contention that it could do nothing to change the way it did business. Tracey Norberg’s (RMA’s Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel) flat-earth argument that it would be too difficult to make tires that could be scanned for tire age and recall information, fell flat.

“That’s interesting because I think an awful lot of people in this audience have an iPhone,” said symposium chair Earl Weener, an aviation safety expert, and NTSB member since 2010. “That iPhone can read QR codes, can read barcodes, can read UBS codes. But somehow that is too much technology for the tire manufacturers and for the tire distribution process. You know, you go to the airport and about every third person checks in with their iPhone, with a barcode on them. So it seems to me that maybe some imagination is required.” (See Safety Research & Strategies 2007 whitepaper on tire RFID)

Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane presented an overview on the tire age issue, noting that rubber manufacturers have been publishing papers on thermo-oxidative aging as far back as the 1920s. In the last quarter-century, the debate over, the research on, and the official recognition of this safety hazard has garnered much more attention from automakers, tiremakers and the government. Automakers preceded U.S. tiremakers in issuing tire age warnings by at least a decade. Throughout the 1990s, the majority of vehicle manufacturers worldwide added warnings to their owner’s manuals about aged tires.  These warnings all focused on a six-year threshold.  In October 2005, that Bridgestone/Firestone broke ranks with other tire makers and issued a “Technical Bulletin” to its dealers advising them that tires should be inspected after 5 years and replaced after 10. Other major tiremakers, such as Cooper, Michelin and Continental-General followed.  Many tiremakers defer to auto manufacturers’ recommendations, a defacto service life of six years. NHTSA, which has studied the problem extensively since early the 2000s, has clearly stated that age is a hazard and a factor in tire-related crashes. While there are no state or federal tire age regulations, there is general consensus on when a tire’s useful service life is over. 

Despite decades of acknowledgement among all of the major players, the critical information about tire age has not been adequately conveyed to those at the retail level – consumers, and tire sellers and the tire and service technicians on whose advice and guidance the average motorist relies. Neither industry has taken responsibility for nor taken action to alert and train tire service professionals or consumers, which is why we continue to see old tires rotated into service with deadly results

The symposium was also marked by a rare open dispute between the RMA, which represents manufacturers, and the Tire Industry Association, which represents tire sellers. RMA chose the symposium to roll out its lobbying effort to implement a mandatory registration system requiring retailers to electronically register the tire at the time of the sale. Ever since, the RMA has been busy trying to get language to that effect wedged into a transportation bill. The TIA has argued that tire registration is already too big of a burden for retailers to have to stock registration cards from several manufacturers. Retailers should just provide the customer the TIN and tell them what website they can use to register the vehicles.

TIA Executive Vice President Roy Littlefield says that 80 percent of the tires retailers sell are registered and the group has been trying to keep any such mandates out of federal legislation. The TIA does support any effort to “take advantage of current technology. The industry can do a better job, and not only improve the tire registration system, but also focus on the more serious issue of recalls.”  

Safety Research & Strategies is hopeful that the NTSB will, at long last, move the ball forward. The Tire Identification Number (TIN) system is forty years old and showing its age. Just about every retail product can be and is tracked via automation – except for passenger car tires, and there is no good reason why techs and consumers are still relying on cards and complicated web searches to find out if a particular tire has been recalled and why isn’t the full TIN on both sides of the sidewall?  The excuses are as tired as the system itself.

See also The Run Down on NTSB Tire Symposium