The Run Down on the NTSB Tire Symposium

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) brought together tire industry players, federal regulators, and consumer advocates for a tire safety symposium to evaluate the tire recall system, new technologies, tire age and service life, and consumer awareness in preparation for a tire safety report and recommendations scheduled for release next year.  The intervention by the NTSB, which provides formal safety recommendations independent from NHTSA, signifies an important step in pressing for industry and regulators to address these unresolved safety issues.

But turning around the leaky super-dreadnaught that is our tire recall system isn’t going to be easy. Forty years after the Tire Identification Number (TIN) system was created, techs and consumers are still forced to rely on pen and paper and a lot of searching to figure out whether a tire has been recalled.  While most vehicle and tire manufacturers have issued recommendations and warnings on tire age (i.e., maximum service life), these practices are still little known and rely on consumers and service providers to decode the date of manufacture hidden in the alphanumeric TIN. While most other industries have installed automated systems to individually track goods, but the tire industry has no such mechanism – despite its important role on a vehicle. And TIN numbers are not machine readable; thus, when they move through the distribution chain, retailers and servicers cannot easily determine the tires’ age and recall history in their inventory or for customers who rely on them. The result is that recalled and over-aged tires (that look like perfectly serviceable tires) slip through the cracks undetected. 

Symposium Highlights

By far, the best moment in the two-day confab was symposium chair Earl Weener’s rebuke of the Rubber Manufacturers Association’s assertion that it just can’t change anything about the way it does anything. For example, Tracey Norberg, the RMA’s Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel argued that it would be too difficult to radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips into tires. (RFID chips could store the tire’s age and recall information allowing dealers and service techs to scan the tires every time they inspect a vehicle.) Such technology would be challenging, she said, because it could change the structural integrity of the tire – not to mention all the complicated questions about what information to put on the chip, how it’s used, and who will read it and how.

Weener wasn’t buying it:

“That’s interesting because I think an awful lot of people in this audience have an iPhone. 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,” he said. “So it seems to me that maybe some imagination is required.”

Imagination? Tire manufacturers have been developing RFID technology in tires since 1994. Michelin, Goodyear and others have been embedding RFID tags into commercial and racing tires for years.

Weener noted that despite the TREAD Act, in place for 14 years, NHTSA’s revisions to the tire endurance and resistance standards, and the tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) requirements, “…we are still seeing accidents—accidents these measures were intended to address. By holding this symposium, our goals are to explore the effectiveness of these various initiatives in improving highway safety, and identify what additional work needs to be done.”

Much of the symposium was littered with the same arguments we’ve come to expect: NHTSA and the manufacturers continued to point the finger at consumers—tire-related crashes would be minimal if only consumers would perform weekly tire inspections, constantly monitor air pressure and tread depth, have service stations regularly rotate and inspect their tires, do extensive research before purchasing a tire, know better than to buy a used tire, and promptly send in the registration card dealers always helpfully provide so that diligent manufacturers can inform them as soon as there is a recall. As the RMA’s Dan Zielinski said, “there certainly are a number of people talking about [the importance of tire maintenance] and in very a consistent way, and it’s easy for consumers to find, but we’re still facing a significant population that’s not always paying attention to it.”

Other noteworthy moments:

  • NHTSA cites faulty data. Randy Whitfield, of the data-analysis firm Quality Control Systems Corp., dropped a bomb during his presentation on tire safety data, showing that the data that NHTSA has relied on to show that tires are safer is not accurate. Whitfield performed a detailed analysis of the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database—which records all tire-related fatalities. Whitfield’s assessment, sponsored by non-profit The Safety Institute, indicates that the number of tire-related crashes and resulting deaths has remained relatively constant since 1995. Despite acknowledging that Whitfield is right about the FARS data, NHTSA pointed to a study showing that tire-related deaths and injuries have decreased by half since Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 139 made tires more robust. But Whitfield told the NTSB “that’s just not true” because the agency is looking at a survey with a small sample size of crashes involving light passenger vehicles towed for tire-related damage, rather than evaluating all tire-related crashes. Whitfield’s science-based conclusions failed to stop the data-driven NHTSA from quoting the same incorrect figures later in the day. 

“It was stunning to me that a speaker following my talk and following even NHTSA’s statistician’s talk, which confirmed my numbers, was making statements that tire-related casualties have come down,” Whitfield said. “That means we live in a fact-free zone, and that’s dangerous.”

  • Infighting in the industry. There was also dissention in the industry ranks. The RMA, whose members include eight tire manufacturers, and the Tire Industry Association (TIA), made up predominantly of tire dealers, have always held fast to the voluntary system that requires retailers to hand consumers the manufacturers’ registration cards. But now the RMA wants to put the burden solely on the retailers. At the symposium, RMA’s Norberg announced that the group wants a mandatory registration system requiring retailers to electronically register the tire at the time of the sale.

That drew ire from the TIA’s Kevin Rohlwing, who said it’s already too big of a burden for retailers to have to stock registration cards from several manufacturers—instead, retailers should just have to give the customer the TIN and tell them what website they can use to register the vehicles. For too long, the industry has put the entire burden for the registry system on the dealers without providing them with the tools they need to easily do the job, and it looks like the dealers have had enough. (The same can be said about the tire age recommendations.)

  • Tire aging got some of the spotlight. The industry leaders stuck to the same old story that tire age isn’t nearly as important to preventing a crash as keeping the tires properly inflated, without explaining how air pressure is going to keep a 13-year-old spare tire from detreading on a hot highway when it’s put into service. The RMA also offered its age-old argument that there is no “one date” when a tire becomes too old, so a tire expiration date of six or 10 years would force consumers to spend money on a tire that could still be serviceable for several more years. (The RMA continues to ignore the 10 year recommendations of many of its members.)  Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, who presented at the symposium, countered by comparing it to blood alcohol content, saying “we have recommendations for blood alcohol. The states have adopted a .08. And there’s a reason for that. Does that mean that everybody at .08 is going to crash their car on the way home? I don’t think so. I think we understand that there’s an increased risk at that point, and it’s a good point at which we want to cut that off and draw a line in the sand.”

Norberg also mentioned offhand that if tire makers were only interested in money, they would want a tire-aging standard because then they could sell more tires. What she and the manufacturers forgot to mention is that rubber manufacturers have an antiquated logistics and supply chain that doesn’t individually track tires.  The result is that, especially with the proliferation of sizes, tires in the retail stream can be in excess of a year old. When a customer knows that the product has an expiration he or she will likely insist on newer tires or a discount on the older ones. Someone has to pay for that. The only way to avoid those costs is to implement an individual tracking and automated system.


The NTSB’s Tire Safety Report

The NTSB’s 2015 report that will include detailed examinations of at least two fatal tire-related crashes that occurred in February 2014. On February 15, the left rear tire on a 2004 Kia Sorrento detreaded, causing the driver to lose control, spin out through an interstate median, and 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 Michelin Cross Terrain tire was 11 years old when it failed. 

A week later, on February 21, the left rear tire on a 2002 Ford 350 XLT 15-passenger van experienced a complete tread separation while driving 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 shortly after Sam’s Club put it on the vehicle in 2012 because it had a potential for tread loss or rapid air loss from a tread-belt separation. Sam’s Club mechanics inspected the tire in November 2013 but failed to identify and remove the recalled tire.  Neither retailers nor the tire manufacturers have a recall system that allows consumers or service professionals to determine whether a specific tire is recalled. 

The two crashes highlight the dangers of the outdated tire identification and recall system.

Tire recall notification relies on retailers providing consumers with registration cards that need to be completed with the TIN and sent to the manufacturers.  In some cases tire dealers register tires at the point of sale – but that still requires a manual process of transcribing 11 alpha-numeric characters off each tire (accurately) into a system that is then transmitted to the manufacturers.  It’s a slow arduous process that is not conducive to high registration rates and remediation which is in part why tire recall return rates average less than 30 percent. 

Assuming consumers do learn of a recall, there is no database that allows them to search for recalls by TIN number.  (Date codes on tires are found in the last four digits and are coded by the week and year.  For example 4313 equates to the 43rd week of 2013. Tires prior to 2000 relied on three digits and confounding this system are the NHTSA requirements which mandate a complete TIN with the date code only on one side of the tire.  TINs also contain codes associated with the plant of manufacture, size and model and are not unique identifiers, thus thousands of tires can have the same TIN number. 

So to determine if the tire has been recalled, servicers and consumers must still find the full TIN—sometimes requiring that they lie down under the vehicle with a flashlight, if only the partial TIN is showing—then search through NHTSA’s database by make and size and pour over the lists to see if the TIN number is included. It’s a confusing and laborious process retailers and servicers do not have time to undertake and consumers often don’t understand.

On the tire age/service life front, most of the industry has acknowledged in the last decade that tires degrade over time regardless of use and should be removed after about six to 10 years.  Spare tires, tires on little used vehicles and used tires with adequate tread often exceed these recommendations and still appear serviceable (See “Aged” Tire Case Numbers Grow

NHTSA has been researching the issue of tire aging since 2003 and has confirmed that age plays a role in tire safety but has declined to do anything other than advise consumers to follow recommendations from automakers and tire manufacturers.  Nearly every automaker recommends removing tires after six years, and many tire manufacturers recommend removal at 10, but those recommendations are buried in owner’s manuals and technical bulletins, and—despite all the talk about increasing consumer awareness and education—the industry players have consistently failed to tell even their own dealers and servicers that aging is a safety concern. And if consumers were better informed about the dangers of tire aging, the only way to find out a tire’s age is to decipher the odd date code in the TIN.

These problems could be fixed by utilizing scanning technology that’s been available for years that can include RFID or QR codes for example (see Tire Recalls and Tire Safety: The RFID Solution) that could automate the information needed.  But efforts to seriously consider these changes have been repeatedly stymied by the tire manufacturers, led by the RMA, which is intent on passing the responsibility to everyone else – NHTSA, dealers, and consumers. 

The general take: the NTSB is really paying attention and may issue recommendations urging NHTSA and the industry to finally implement some common-sense tire safety regulations and practices. The NTSB is best known for its investigations of aircraft crashes, but the board has played an important role in advancing motor vehicle on issues ranging from the inclusion of rear-seat lap and shoulder belts in the 1980s to recent improvements in highway and rail grade crossings.  More than 80 percent of NTSB recommendations have been adopted.  Typically, NHTSA’s first reaction to the NTSB’s advice is to ignore it, but maybe for reasons we cannot fathom, this time will be different. The Safety Record can dream anyway.

A webcast of the symposium and the panelist presentations is available here.