Thoroughly Modern Tire Dealer – Not.

Bob Ulrich’s column If the TIA is the Puppet Master is NHTSA the Puppet? in February 14ths Modern Tire Dealer, casts me as an impatient crusader who has single-handedly ginned up a non-existent controversy about the dangers of tire age and used tires in the service of trial lawyers.

The issue of tire age surfaced in the U.S. in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone Wilderness ATX. In 2003, NHTSA fulfilled a Congressional mandate by initiating a tire age rulemaking, which sought manufacturers’ comments. The industry did not exactly distinguish itself. Its responses ranged from denial of any problem to ignorance of testing, analysis or the very concept of tire age.

Our research showed that industry was studying rubber oxidation and heat as early as the 1930s. We also located a pair of German studies from the 1980s which concluded that tires failed at a greater rate after six years and recommended manufacturers alert consumers to prevent potential crashes. We identified the vehicle and tire makers who followed that advice, publishing tire age recommendations as early as the 1990s. Not one industry representative alerted the agency to wealth of information it had about tire age.   

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.

Burning Question: Why are Some Manufacturers Investigated for Door Fires, Others Not?

Karen Swicker’s used 2002 Subaru Outback was new to her – less than a year old, when the driver’s side door ignited as she drove look along a Newburyport, Massachusetts road on February 16. The first puff of smoke sent her to the side of the road. As she came to a stop, the wisps had turned to a cloud. When the Fire Department pulled the door off, it burst into flames, and fire fighters had to cut the electrical wires from the harness.

This might have made a memorable entry in Subaru’s new marketing campaign, First Car Story, in which a driver can used an automated computer program with music and graphics to wax poetic about the elderly El Dorado with the duct-taped bumper that ferried him and his friends to the malt shop.

As Alan Bethke, Subaru of America’s director of marketing communications said in a statement: “The First Car Story campaign provides a creative outlet for reliving those unique, funny, unforgettable car experiences anyone who had a first car can relate to.”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Car…

Has Paula Poundstone been reading our memos to NHTSA about the serious safety problems created by keyless ignition systems? This weekend, the comedienne broke into a spontaneous and funny rant about them during her weekly gig with the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”

The Case of the Collapsing Seat: Weak Standards and No Oversight Led to a Fatal Defect

A renown seat safety expert has called on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Veterans Administration to institute random spot checks to ensure that mobility scooter and other powered wheelchair devices intended for the disabled meet minimum voluntary safety standards – and publicize any compliance failures to warn the public. Dr. Kenneth J. Saczalski, who has been at the forefront of seat strength issues for decades, made his call to action today at a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.

Saczalski was retained by Miami attorney David Bianchi on behalf of the family of Carolyn Sorenson to determine what caused a scooter seat back to break in a products liability case against the U.S. distributors of the Daytona GT3 Electric Scooter. In January 2009, 64-year-old Sorenson died from positional asphyxiation in the trash room of her condominium building, when the plastic molded seat of her mobility scooter fractured and collapsed, causing her to fall backwards. Sorenson’s lower half remained belted in what was left of the seat, while her upper torso was wedged behind her against the door frame, according to police reports.

Will Manufacturers Kill the Used Tires Biz?

Tiremakers have long held the re-sale market at arms length, out of a healthy respect for the boundaries of anti-trust regulations.  But a number of factors are aligning that may shift the market away from the re-sale of used tires for vehicles. The cost of selling used tires is going up – the scrap market is growing in tandem with the demand for used tires to be recycled into fuel to meet the energy requirements of rising economies, such as China’s. At the same time, tire litigation is getting more sophisticated and manufacturers have a keener understanding of their liability.

In 2007, Safety Research & Strategies kick-started this shift by publishing Used Tires: A Booming Business with Hidden Dangers. The report made the link between crashes, tire age and used tires, using data to show that nearly one-third of aged tire crashes investigated involve used tires. It also noted that inspections by used tire wholesalers are cursory and lead to dangerous tires entering the market and recommended used tire sellers adopt higher standards that included visual reviews and internal examinations, such as shearography or X-rays.

Tire Known Unknowns: Decoding the Date

Human Factors researchers at the State University of North Carolina have recently concluded that consumers can’t read the date of manufacture obscured by the week and month configuration dictated by the Tire Identification Number (aka the DOT number).

Researchers Jesseca Taylor and Michael Wogalter asked 83 test subjects to translate tire markings as represented by different date configurations, ranging from the conventional month/day/year (12/05/07) to the DOT code’s four-digit week-year (2205). Effect of Text Format on Determining Tires’ Date of Manufacture, accepted by Annual Proceedings of 55th Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, found that when consumers chose to translate the different four-digit representations into a month and year, they consistently failed to understand that the first two digits represented the week of manufacture.

The DOT number, an alpha-numeric code found on the tire sidewall, has consistently confused consumers and tire professionals. The last four characters of the 11-character code contain the week and year the tire was made. For example, 0302 signifies that the tire was made during the third week of 2002. (Tires made prior to 2000 used a three-digit date configuration at the end of the DOT code.  In those cases, 039 signifies that the tire was manufactured during the third week of 1999 – or the 1989.)  No participant in Taylor and Wogalter’s study correctly identified examples such as 03/01 or 1102. They confused the first two digits with the month itself, for example, identifying “03” as March, instead of realizing that the third week of the year falls in January.

Keeping Automakers’ Sales Truly Safe: The Edmund’s Conference

SRS was in attendance, Tuesday, as the cyber sales team at Edmund’s ushered in a “new chapter in the conversation between government, the auto industry, safety advocates, academics and consumers, marked by thoughtful, data-driven contributions from all.”

It was written amid cocktails and at more sobering and highly-scripted venues inside the Newseum, the 250,000 square-foot monument to journalism in Washington DC.  If Edmund’s is going to author the new chapter on safety, consumers beware.

In the conference brochure, Edmund’s CEO Jeremy Anwyl tells participants that the Toyota Unintended Acceleration crisis was the impetus for the meeting: “Edmunds.com watched as a shallow conversation made international headlines. We felt uneasy about the lack of real discussion taking place among smart people with the power to change laws, introduce technology and educate drivers.”

It’s Time to Make Seat Heaters Safer

Today, Safety Research & Strategies called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the industry to correct a longstanding safety problem: seat heaters that injure disabled drivers and passengers. With no government or industry-wide standards, manufacturers have installed a variety of seat heater systems – some that  reach temperatures significantly above human tolerances or have no automatic shut-off mechanism – or both. While most drivers know when to turn a hot seat off, occupants with lower body sensory deficits don’t feel the burn.

Round 437: No One Cares About Kids in Cars – Still

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board gathered all the government, industry and academic play-ahs in the board room of its headquarters to answer a question that’s been nagging safety advocates: Why doesn’t anyone give a damn about child safety in cars and planes?

The day-long meeting was meant to be a kick-off to the NTSB’s 2011 focus on child safety in airplanes and automobiles, with a special focus on increasing child restraint and seat belt use rates. Note to NTSB: you might want to allocate more time to this project – the lag in child safety regulation and industry practices has been the sad state of affairs for decades. Decades.

First up was the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency defended its practice of allowing children to fly without child safety restraints. Without a hint of irony, the FAA said that such a requirement would result in more people driving rather than flying, putting children at higher risk because the injury and fatality rates for children in motor vehicle crashes far surpasses that those in an airplane.

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