Tire Age Crusade in UK Begins

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Advocacy has always been a long game. Frances Molloy, the mother of a young British musician who died in a bus crash caused by a the failure of a 19-year-old tire, has met her first hurdle in a letter from the Secretary of State for Transport, declining to take any immediate action to limit the age of tires fitted on commercial buses.

Secretary Patrick McLoughlin held out the possibility of a more comprehensive action “including – possibly – through the imposition of restrictions on the use of tyres above a certain age via the existing vehicle inspection regime,” but said more research needed to be done.

“He’s given a lot of words,” Molloy says. “There’s nothing in this response. It’s just basically, I will commission research. Research is a delaying tactic. It’s stalling. We already know tires have a shelf life.”

McLoughlin met with Molloy and David Price, an expert in crash forensic analysis, on November 20 to talk about policy responses to the death of 18-year-old son Michael Molloy, who died in September 2012 with another 23-year-old passenger and the driver in a bus crash caused by the catastrophic failure of a tire with legal tread depth, but was 19-and-a-half-year-old. The tire had been purchased secondhand by Merseypride Travel, which owned the 52-seat coach. Michael’s death has resulted in posthumous honors involving his passion for music, but Frances Molloy is aiming for a comprehensive policy change.

McLoughlin’s letter to Maria Eagle, a member of the House of Commons representing the Molloy’s neighborhood in Liverpool, makes clear that the rubber industry’s reluctance to acknowledge its own long-held technical research on the relationship between rubber age and robustness took precedence. McLoughlin wrote:

“Although research is limited, it is clear to me that the association between the age of a tyre and its structural integrity is not fully understood. I noted the advice that Mr Price provided in our meeting but also recognise that the tyre industry suggests that other factors such as the maintenance of correct inflation pressures, regular use, and inspection for damage are more critical than a single limit on the age of a tyre. I have noted research from the USA that indicates artificially-aged tyres can fail safety tests but also note that their study replicated conditions of high ambient temperature and therefore cannot necessarily be directly related to conditions of use found here in the UK.”

McLoughlin said that his staff surveyed 210 vehicles more than 10 years old, and found that 6 percent of the tires were more than 10 years old and 3 percent were more than 15 years old. McLoughlin did not explain the methodology the surveyors used, nor did he clarify if the 3 percent figure was in addition to the percentage of tires older than 10 years, or a subset thereof.

He did note that his staff learned: “it is not always possible for examiners to view the date code on the tyre due to the way dual tyres are fitted to the rear axles on the vehicle.”

He did promise to alert “vehicle operators” of the dangers associated with older tires and “to offer them some practical advice on how to establish the tyre age for themselves. Given the particular importance of avoiding failure in the front axle tyres of larger vehicles, the advice would also urge operators to restrict the use of older tyres to the rear axle where they will operate as part of a pair.”

McLoughlin said that he was preparing a safety alert to be sent to 60,000 subscribers registered to receive e-mail alerts through the Vehicle Operator and Services Agency (VaSA), and would contact the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, to garner their support in in distributing the information to its members.

Warnings, of course, are the least meaningful action one can take. If forced to do anything, manufacturers will take a warning label anytime – it’s far cheaper, and in litigation, the thin material stretched over backsides feels like cover. Blame the customer is a cherished tactic. But as a means of hazard prevention, their efficacy is suspect. They don’t prevent the lowest-common-denominator, and operators continue business as usual

Eagle and Molloy wasted no time in sending their scathing responses. They had suggested that the government could take old tires off the road by making tire age an element of the Ministry of Transport (MoT) certificate so that tires over six years are not fitted and anything over 10 years are scrapped. Vehicles older than three years driven on public roads must pass the MOT test of safety, crashworthiness, and emissions annually. Molloy has focused her campaign on a tire age regulation for commercial public transportation vehicles, like motor coaches, because the public has no control over their fitness. Molloy reminded McLoughlin that two separate UK coroners have taken the unusual step of filing a Rule 43 report, alerting the government to a threat to public health.

“It is outrageous that the government would not make the changes to the MoT test as a matter of urgency given that two coroners within two years have raised concerns and that it has already cost lives; one of which was my gifted and talented 18 year old son Michael who had a promising music career ahead of him and who has left the biggest hole in my life and so many others.  I will never, ever recover from his loss and I now exist as opposed to live a life. It is without doubt that had the Gloucestershire coroner – Alan Crickmore’s Rule 43 report been heeded then my son would most definitely still be alive.” Molloy wrote

Molloy blames McLouglin’s anemic response with the majority Conservative party’s dislike of business regulation. Molloy will be meeting with Mary Creagh, a member of parliament and Shadow Secretary of Transport to discuss a more powerful political counterpoint. (In the UK system, the opposition party sets up a Shadow Cabinet, a group of spokespeople who criticize the government and offer alternatives. Creagh is McLoughlin’s Labour Party counterpart.)

 “The response in the UK has been: ‘This is outrageous!’” Molloy says.