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.   

We subsequently uncovered the 2001 position of the British Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents the same tire manufacturers in the U.S. market: “BRMA members strongly recommend that unused tyres should not be put into service if they are over 6 years old and that all tyres should be replaced 10 years from the date of their manufacture.” And we began to regularly submit aged tire-related crashes to the agency because no one was collecting that type of information.  Many of these incidents involved what appeared to be virtually “new” tires that were actually aged spares – often stored in the under-carriage, or used tires with legal tread and good visual appearance.  

In October 2005 Bridgestone/Firestone issued a Technical Bulletin to its dealers advising them that tires should be inspected after 5 years and replaced after 10 years – “even when tires appear to be usable from their external appearance or the tread depth may not have reached the minimum wear out.”  Michelin, Continental, Cooper and other tire companies issued similar bulletins – some of which defer customers to adhere to the vehicle manufacturers, which brings us back to the six-year milestone.  Now nearly every vehicle manufacturer recommends replacement of tires after six years, regardless of tread depth. 

Our concern about used tires is not new.  We began to focus of the hazards of used tires six years ago, when we published our first article on the topic (seeUsed Tires: A Booming Business with Hidden Dangers). The RMA followed up three months later with a bulletin warning consumers about the hazards of used tires. Bridgestone/Firestone announced that its corporate stores would no longer sell used tires.

Mr. Ulrich is right about my impatience. Unlike modern tire dealers, I don’t meet tire consumers over the counter.  I meet them when their families have been riven by an entirely preventable tragedy. I frequently learn about safety hazards, like aged and used tires, when these families file a lawsuit.  Helping them, by providing factual research to their lawyers, is part of our business, but my advocacy on this issue is self-funded.

The industry has known about tire aging for decades. NHTSA’s been working on it for more than 10 years. In that time, too many families have lost their loved ones and friends to tire-related crashes that should have never happened. Impatient? You bet.     

More on SRS’s Tire Aging Advocacy