How About a Tire Identification Number Consumers Can Read?

NHTSA’s tinkering with the foundation of the tire recall system, but we doubt it will do anything to make it stronger. The proposed changes to the Tire Identification Number regulations will make things less confusing for manufacturers and NHTSA – consumers and tire technicians that use the TIN to determine if tires are recalled or too old – not so much. Safety Research & Strategies has submitted comments suggesting that the agency actually make the TIN useful for the public it was intended to serve. Read them below: 

August 25, 2014
The Honorable David Friedman
Acting Administrator
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
West Building
Washington, DC 20590
RE:       Comments on Tire Identification Number and Recordkeeping; Docket 2014-0084
Dear Acting Administrator Friedman:

We are pleased that the agency is proposing to standardize the length of the Tire Identification Number (TIN) “to eliminate confusion,” and perhaps “assist consumers with identifying whether their tires may be subject to recall.” As the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking notes, the TIN: “plays an important role in identifying which tires are subject to recall and remedy campaigns for safety defects and noncompliances.”

The TIN plays another critical role in tire safety: it assists consumers, tire technicians and other service providers in determining a tire’s age. For this reason, Safety Research & Strategies urges the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to add to this proposal a section requiring the TIN to include a non-coded date of manufacture. This amendment is made more imperative by the agency’s decision to forego a rulemaking on tire age, in favor of consumer education.
In March, the agency released a report summarizing its research on the hazards of tire age. [1]  The Executive Summary clearly defines the phenomenon:
Tire aging is a phenomenon involving the degradation of the material properties of a tire which over time can compromise its structural integrity and jeopardize its performance. Tire aging takes place whether a tire is driven or not and for this reason is a concern for spare tires and tires that are not regularly driven. The effect of aging may not be visibly detectable on these tires and their integrity may be compromised even though they could be showing a great deal of remaining tread.
Further, Tire Aging: A Summary of NHTSA’s Work acknowledges the effect of tire age on tire failures:
NHTSA research also found that especially in the warmer parts of the United States, including Arizona, Florida, Texas and Southern California, there appears to be a relationship between the age of the tire and the propensity of the tire to fail.
Finally, the report documents the agency’s recognition of hazardous tire age scenarios:
Tire aging is still a concern in the more southern parts of the Sun Belt states, during the summer months when heat build-up can cause a failure. Spare tires remain a concern as well, since they are not replaced regularly and may still show enough tread, even though the structural integrity of the tire may be compromised by aging. Adding to this concern, spare tires are often rotated into use and are sold as used tires.
In this report, the agency announced its intention to coordinate “a promotional and educational initiative to raise consumer awareness about tire aging issues and how to prevent these types of failures,” including “social media messages, fact sheets, infographics, and other web content.”
But before the agency begins to tweet about tire age and build its message on social media platforms, it ought to give consumers a basic tool for identifying a tire’s age on the tire itself – a non-coded date of manufacture.
In 1970, when the Tire Identification Number was established, tiremakers expressly protested the National Highway Safety Bureau’s attempt to create a TIN that consumers could decipher. Firestone, in particular argued that the bureau should adopt
what was then the Rubber Manufacturers Association’s two-symbol date code to obscure a tire’s age.
Tires are not perishable items. Therefore, a conspicuous disclosure of tire age would unavoidably introduce into the marketplace a totally artificial measure of quality unrelated to product performance and effectiveness.[2]
Even by 1970, tiremakers had long been aware, through their own research dating back to the 1930s, of the material degradation caused by thermo-oxidative aging.  Forty-four years later, that knowledge is no longer the sole provenance of the rubber industry – NHTSA, auto manufacturers and a number of the major tire companies publicly acknowledge that aged tires should be removed from service for safety’s sake. But none of these entities has made it easy for consumers to follow their recommendations.
In December 2001, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to establish a new standard to the existing labeling requirements and addressed, among other issues, the TIN and tire markings.[3] As part of its research, the agency conducted a series of eight focus groups to determine what consumers knew about tires and safety and what they would like to know. The agency’s research, which formed the basis of the proposal, found that consumers were confused by the codes, but wanted to learn more about what they meant.[4] Among the specific findings of the study were:
  • No more than one or two study participants had any understanding of more than a little of the information on tires. Some know that they can find tire pressure, tire type, weight/load rating and brand name. But few had any concept of the full range of information available. And no more than one or two could begin to explain the codes, ratings and other information.
  • Most study participants were perplexed by the array of alpha and numeric codes appearing on the demonstration tire. Although they suspect that the codes may hold interesting, even useful, information, none of the persons taking part in this study could identify or describe the meaning of the majority of codes, grades and scores.
  • Many wanted to know what the tire codes and ratings mean. Although some study participants indicated little or no interest in knowing anything more about tires than they already know, a number expressed a desire to know more about the meaning of the information that appears on tires. Most said that they felt it would make them better informed consumers.
  • Some study participants wished additional information was shown on tires. After they had looked at the information already contained on tires, some suggested that the following information was also displayed: Date of manufacture. Recommended replacement interval.
  • Study participants wished tire information was presented in “plain language.” Since they tend to believe that information provided on tires “is there for a reason,” they wished it was displayed in a more understandable format. Codes may be appropriate for the trade, they suggested, but not for consumers.
The agency failed to heed the results of its own study. Instead of adopting a “plain language” standard, it proposed re-ordering the TIN information and requiring that the information be molded on both sides. In the Final Rule, the agency amended its proposal and only mandated that the full TIN be molded on the outward sidewall. This has added to the confusion for consumers trying to discern their tire’s age, because unfortunately, tires are not always mounted with the complete TIN on the outside.  
Beginning in 2003, Safety Research & Strategies and its predecessor, Strategic Safety have been submitting comments to rulemakings related to tire age, tire identification and tire recalls. In many submissions, we have suggested that the agency improve tire safety by making the TIN readily accessible and understandable with the same aims stated by NHTSA: to ensure that consumers can identify recalled and aged tires. Most recently, we recommended that NHTSA add a TIN search function to its public Web portal and require tire makers, as well as automakers to maintain the recall remedy status by TIN, as improvements to the recall notification regulations are established. NHTSA declined our recommendation, because Congress had not mandated that it do so.
When the agency fails to consider human factors in rulemaking, safety suffers. An example from NHTSA’s regulatory history is permitting keyless, electronic ignition systems without considering how these systems would disrupt long established driver behaviors. In allowing the “key” to be an invisible electronic code, housed in a fob that only plays a role in starting the vehicle, but not in shutting it off, the agency re-introduced the rollaway hazard and added a carbon monoxide poisoning problem that had not existed heretofore. The agency is still in the process of a rulemaking to fix this error.
If the TIN is to be worthy of its intended purpose, the agency should take the next step and require machine-readability. A non-coded date of manufacture will help the average consumer and tire tech determine a tire’s age. Requiring a standardized, computer readable TIN would provide a much needed automated method for manufacturers and service providers to quickly address recalled tires or tires that were beyond their service life recommendations.  I refer the agency to our 2007 report on RFID in tires, “Tire Recalls and Tire Safety: The RFID Solution,” which explains how RFID tags could improve the tire recall system: “With a chip embedded in the sidewall and inexpensive readers installed in service shops (or an interface with the vehicle computer), motorists could have the status of their tires checked every time they take their vehicle to be serviced, or through their instrument panel.”[5] RFID in tires is not new and appears in many manufacturers tires – and it is but one available technology.  Laser-etched QR codes are another that allow access to vital tire information via a scan.  The agency can play an important role in shepherding the TIN into the 21st century. 
In the meantime, if the agency wants to put the burden on consumers – rather than manufacturers – to understand and act on the dangers of tire age, then it is the agency’s absolute obligation to make it possible to the public to understand a tire’s age. We urge NHTSA to amend this rulemaking to require a TIN with a non-dated code of manufacture, before it focuses on boosting its Facebook likes. 

[1] Tire Aging: A Summary of NHTSA’s Work; Pg. 3; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; March 2014

[2] The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company; Docket 70-12-No.1-076

[3] Docket 2001-11157; 66FR 65536; December 19, 2001

[4] Tire Labeling Focus Group Report; Docket 2001-11157-07; Equals Three Communications; May 14, 2001


Tire Recalls and Tire Safety: The RFID Solution

The current tire recall system designed to alert and capture defective models is ineffective and outmoded. Despite many technological advances, consumers trying to identify a defective tire still rely on a 38-year-old recall system that rarely averages more than a 20 percent return rate, leaving millions of potentially deadly tires on consumers’ vehicles.

Other important tire safety issues ranging from aging to counterfeiting can benefit from an improved identification system. Radio Frequency Identification tags offers a solution.

For more information, click here for a PDF version of Tire Recalls and Tire Safety: The RFID Solution, an overview of the issue.