Tire Industry Declares End to Era of Recall Apathy

If one listened closely in the Sonesta Hilton Head Resort meeting room at the 2018 Clemson Global Tire Conference, one could hear the strains of Kumbaya, as the Tire Industry Association and the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association announced a new alliance to address the longstanding problems of the tire recall system. They didn’t announce much else.

The occasion was a half-hour presentation on the tire registration and recall system at the mid-April conference by David Martin, category director of tools and supply for American Tire Distributors Inc., and the current TIA president and John Evankovich, director of Sam’s Club Tire and Battery Centers, and TIA board secretary.  

TIA Executive Director Roy Littlefield introduced their talk with a confession: “Tire registration the most emotional issue for tire retailers. We now have over 10,000 members and we have seen an incredible increase in membership because of the emphasis on tire registration and recall. We have to look at how current technology can improve a system that has been outdated from the beginning.”

Then, Martin and Evankovich devoted most of their talk to recounting the regulatory history of tire registration. Nearly a half century of TIA and USTMA indifference to the system that is the foundation of the recalled tire recovery effort has produced correspondingly dismal rates – an average of 30 percent, compared to the 72 percent and above rates for recalled vehicles, equipment or child restraints. That’s because for most of the regulation’s history, the two lobbied to offload their responsibilities onto each other, or dump everything on the consumer. For example, in the early 1980s, tire dealers persuaded Congress to remove them from the tire recall system – the regulations only required dealers to hand their customers a registration card to be filled out and returned to the manufacturer.

But in 2015, the Fix America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act brought their existential struggle out into public view. The FAST Act compels NHTSA to write regulations requiring independent dealers to maintain customer tire purchase information and electronically transmit those records to tire manufacturers. The former Rubber Manufacturers Association (now USTMA) lobbied hard for that. The TIA won a provision requiring the Secretary of Transportation to examine the feasibility of requiring tire manufacturers to include an electronic TIN on every tire.

“You would not think you would see the TIA and the USTMA standing together,” conceded panelist Jay Spears, Continental Tire’s Director of Standards and Regulation, during a Q & A session. “We did not have the same opinion and we fought it out in public, which is not a good look for anyone.” 

While NHTSA quietly works on its Congressional to-do list, the USTMA and the TIA decided to it might be better to work together. Their discussions, described as “eye-opening,” led to the revelation that understanding each other’s perspectives was critical toward reaching a solution.

Interspersed with the history lesson were a number of comments on the system’s failures. Evankovich noted that the system is still basically a paper-and-pencil system: “The fact is if you look at it today and where we started – it’s basically the same – we are using the same technology. Things have not changed very much.” (In 1970, advanced technology consisted of liquid crystal displays and pocket calculators.)

Martin admitted that the industry had not done a good job training tire techs and sellers to properly register tires: “Education and outreach – There’s been a lack of real lack of getting the information out to installers so they will understand the proper process. We’ve just been sending out cards and it hasn’t been effective.”

But the session did not focus on solutions. When asked if a unique identifier for each tire would benefit the recall process, Martin only noted “it was a consideration that has been discussed,”

The group agreed that the solution would be rooted in technology which would impose costs on manufacturers and retailers alike, but no one would venture an opinion on what either would be.

“Both sides know that technology isn’t free,” says Evankovich. “There is going a cost associated with  whether it’s from technology that goes into a tire, whether it’s from [point of sale systems] that can handle advanced capabilities, whether it’s a scanner to scan TIN numbers, I don’t think any one answer is 100 percent right today.”

For the consumer and for the service technicians, the bottom line is this: there are too many ways for old or recalled tires to stay or be mounted on a vehicle, with catastrophic consequences. This is a problem created by both the tire sellers and the tire manufacturers, who have not supported a workable system to accurately register all tires, to ensure that manufacturers have all the data, and to provide a comprehensive, easy or quick way to determine if a tire has been recalled.  While the FAST Act requires NHTSA to create a tire recall Tire Identification Number (TIN) look-up, it has not done so yet. In the meantime, the USTMA launched one in November 2017, but only its eight members participate, so it’s not complete.

And on the subject of tire age, consumers and tire techs can choose from a set of confusing options. Most auto manufacturers have set six years as the recommended service life limit on tires. Some in the rubber industry argue that tires are ageless; some have declared a 10-year service life.

In a March deposition, a TIA official testified that if a full-size spare will be used as a replacement tire, the shop should check to see if it has been recalled. Really? Only check the full-sized spare? What about the rest of the damned tires?

These are flimsy, ad-hoc standards of care, being created in the vacuum left by the flimsy, ad hoc tire registration and recall system.

The Safety Record Blog has been writing about aged tires and the broken tire recall and registration system, if you want to catch up, follow the links below for a sampling:

RMA Launches Feel-Good Tire Recall Database

Improving the Recall System for the 21st Century

The Wrong Fix for the Broken Recall System

"Aged" Tire Case Numbers Grow: Spares and Used tires Top the List

Not Very FAST Act Tackles Recall, Tire Issues, Closes Rental Loophole

The Safety Record Blog means it sincerely when we say that it’s nice to see that manufacturers and tire retailers finally admit that the current system sucks and that it hasn’t advanced technologically since (if you are old enough) you played Pong. But we are less jazzed about the Goldilocks-like looking-for–the-technology-that-is-just-right attitude toward action. Consumers have been waiting 48 years for the industry to commit itself to taking unsafe tires off the road, and we guess they’ll have to wait some more.