Product Liability

Tire Retirement

On June 2, 2008, after many years of prodding by consumer advocacy groups and attorneys, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a consumer advisory concerning aging tires. This follows numerous lawsuits involving Explorer/Firestone rollovers, which made the public aware of the potential dangers of tire aging. Additional industry documents and studies have made clear that tires more than six years old are hazardous to drivers, and can result in tread separations, crashes and rollovers.

A NHTSA study on Firestone ATX/Wilderness tire defects found that age was a definitive factor in failure, particularly in high-temperature environments that cause tire rubber to deteriorate more quickly. A 2003 presentation showed that a tire’s age contributes to failure and consequently, older tires were more likely to fail than newer tires. NHTSA’s Research and Report to Congress on Tire Aging revealed that 77 percent of insurance claims related to failing tires arose from states with hot climates, and of these claims 84 percent involved tires more than six years old.

Safety Research and Strategies (SRS) a consumer advocacy group that has urged the NHTSA to inform the public about risks of aging tires, cites 159 incidents of tread and belt separations of tires more than six years old in loss-of-control accidents. These 159 incidents caused 128 fatalities and 168 injuries according to SRS.

Despite these statistics, the average consumer-and sometimes even qualified tire technicians-remained unaware of the hazards of aging tires in the absence of guidelines and information. Tire industry documents produced in litigation show that tire manufactures know that tires have a shelf life. The natural rubber in tires deteriorates over time when it undergoes oxidation and ozonation. Three years after manufacture, tires become less safe and more prone to accident causing failure.

Any consumer armed with the right information can determine the age of a vehicle’s tires by checking the Department of Transportation code on the tire sidewall. The date and year of the tire’s manufacture are revealed by the last four digits of this number. Importantly, most car and tire manufacturers don’t tell customers how to find this information, or even why this information is important. As a result, many consumers drive automobiles and trucks with tires more than six years old and don’t know it. Even those who are aware of the age of their tires may not have been educated on the potential hazards of old tires.

After studies in the 1980s connected tire failure to age, some German and Japanese car manufacturers embedded warnings deep in their literature. Following the Firestone debacle, some other companies followed suit. However, many other automakers remained close-lipped.

On the heels of the Firestone catastrophe, two acts required NHTSA to further examine the issue of tire aging. The first was the Tire Recall Enforcement, Accountability and Documentation, (TREAD) Act, followed by provision in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act, which required the NHTSA to study tire aging and potential regulatory testing, and to report back to Congress by August 2007.

After the Firestone recalls, Ford Motor Company recruited a polymer chemist named Dr. John Baldwin to examine the cause of the Firestone tire issue, and to look at the science behind tire aging. Baldwin’s research has played a role in understanding how tire’s age, and what happens when they do. Baldwin came up with a lab test that replicated oxidative aging and showed its damaging effect on tires, resulting in Ford recommending that tires be replaced after 6 years.

With the focus on tire safety and issues becoming more public, several American tire manufacturers decided to issue warnings as well. In 2005, Bridgestone-Firestone publicly noted that all tires should be removed after ten years, regardless of condition. Companies such as Continental, Cooper, and Michelin jumped on the bandwagon in 2006 with similar warnings.

Despite the technical findings by NHTSA, SRS, and Ford, and the warnings initiated by some tire and automobile manufacturers, many attorneys and consumer advocacy groups, including SRS, felt that a more formal and public warning to consumers was needed, and called upon the NHTSA to issue its first consumer advisory addressing the dangers of ages tires. Recent investigative segments on tire aging by NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s 20/20, combined with a June 4 Congressional hearing that gave Congress and opportunity to ask NHTSA how it planned to handle the issue of tire aging, pressured NHTSA to answer demands. The consumer advisory was sent out by NHTSA a day before the Congressional hearing.

While many attorneys and consumer advocacy groups don’t feel the consumer warning is quite enough, most agree it’s a start. The advisory warns people to check all of their tires-including their spare-for specific signs of wear, including under-inflation and worn treads. The advisory also warns consumers about the potential hazards of driving worn or improperly inflated tires in hot climates, which can lead to tread separations, crashes and rollovers.

The consumer advisory warning stops short of defining specific age limits of tires, despite a myriad of studies that the six-year mark is a line of demarcation. Instead, the warning suggests consumers refer to the vehicle and/or tire manufacture’s age recommendations. The advisory does note that many manufacturers suggest that tires be replaced between six and ten years, but leaves the definitive suggestions in the hands of tire and vehicle manufacturers.

While more steps can be taken to ensure that consumers are better protected from the potential hazards associated with tire aging, this latest step by the NHTSA will most certainly cut down on the number of individuals who are needlessly killed or injured because they are unknowingly driving vehicles with old, dangerous tires. However, because the tire industry still refuses to give consumers and retailers sufficient information to know about the danger and take preventative measures, needless accidents due to old fires failing will continue to happen.

SOURCE:Tire Retirement, by Richard Newson