As Labor Day weekend approaches and millions of Americans plan to hit the road, it’s a good time to remember that the tires on your car, truck, camper, or trailer have taken a beating on hot asphalt all summer long.
It’s a great time to check your tires for any signs of excessive wear and tear or abnormalities. Remember, design and manufacturing flaws in tires can become deadly on blistering hot roads, so it’s always a good idea to keep tabs on your tire health.
A tire tread separation caused Heidi Solis Perez to lose control of her Mercury Villager minivan in April 2016. The crash, which occurred on I-95 in Jupiter, Florida, killed four of Ms. Perez’s children and two adults. Family members continue to grapple with the devastating pain and deep trauma from the deadly accident.
In May 2008, Steven Morris and his wife Patricia set out from their Florida home to Myrtle Beach to celebrate their wedding anniversary when the Goodyear tire on their Harley Davidson blew out, causing Mr. Morris to lose control of the motorcycle. Mrs. Morris was killed in the resulting crash and Mr. Morris was left with severe physical and emotional injuries.
Another Goodyear tire failure caused Billy Wayne Woods to lose control of his luxury RV in October 2003 as he and his family were returning home to Alabama after a trip to Disney World. The motorhome crashed on I-75 in Georgia, paralyzing Mr. Woods and critically injuring his wife and daughter-in-law. Mr. Woods succumbed to his injuries seven months later.
These are just some of the high-profile cases of tread separation and tire blowouts that federal regulators say kill about 500 people and injure 19,000 more every year.
Blaming the consumer
Compounding the tragedy of tire-related accidents like these are efforts by tire manufacturers to pin the blame on motorists for not properly maintaining their tires, even when evidence has clearly shown that tires often fail to hold up under normal operating conditions due to a design or manufacturing defect.
Like so many other tire-failure crashes, these deadly accidents also happened in the South, where higher temperatures and scorching hot pavement can exacerbate weaknesses in the tire, accelerate degradation, and trigger a potentially deadly tread separation or blowout.
Florida Highway Patrol investigators on the Perez case believe that a faulty rear tire was the likely culprit in that crash. Evidence showed that the hot Florida weather created dry rot that compromised the rubber and diminished the integrity of the failed tire.
In the case of Steve and Patricia Morris, the Goodyear Dunlop D402 tire that blew out on their Harley Davidson motorbike had just 700 miles on it.
“All of a sudden, the tire just let go; there was no warning, no nothing,” Mr. Morris told the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal news. Mr. Morris is also an experienced motorcycle rider who owns a car and motorcycle repair shop in Cape Coral, Florida, so he knows how to properly care for and maintain tires as well as look for signs of abnormalities. A sudden blowout on a tire less than a year old with just hundreds of miles on it should not have happened.
Michigan tire expert William Woehrle, who has testified in several cases involving Dunlop D402 tire failures, told Reveal that Goodyear had a “systemic problem with manufacturing that tire model” and that the company “negligently let defective tires go out the door.”
These defects allow the Dunlop D402 tires to leak pressure or come off their rims, causing drivers to swerve, lose control, and often crash, Mr. Woehrle told Reveal.
In the case of the RV crash that injured Mr. Woods and his family, the tire that blew out was a Goodyear G159, a tire that the manufacturer knew for years was unfit for regular use on highways but nonetheless marketed them for use on RVs and motorhomes, court documents show.
Goodyear’s decision to push the G159 for use on RVs had disastrous consequences. When driven regularly at highway speeds, the tire’s internal temperatures can overheat and cause a degradation of its material properties, which can lead to tread separations, tire blowout, and a potentially deadly loss of vehicle control. Conceivably, the hotter the external conditions, the faster the degradation of a tire already predisposed to fail.
Goodyear’s G159 tires have been linked to hundreds of crashes because of this problem. These accidents have resulted in at least nine deaths and dozens of injuries.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Firestone’s P235/75R15 ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires installed on Ford Explorers and other related vehicles had alarmingly high failure rates. These Firestone tire failures were linked to 271 deaths and more than 800 injuries in the U.S. alone, while hundreds more victims died in similar crashes in other countries.
Records show that the Firestone tires failed at a higher rate in hot climates, further demonstrating that design and manufacturing defects could be amplified by hot conditions and lead to deadly tread separations and blowouts.
Arizona officials told Firestone in 1996 that the treads on its tires were separating in high temperatures. The company responded to the state’s concerns by deploying a team of engineers to inspect the tires.
But instead of finding fault in the tire’s flaws, Firestone officials blamed motorists for the failures, concluding that the tire malfunctions happened when motorists drove on dirt roads, went off-roading, or overloaded their vehicles.
Reports of tire failures also flooded into Firestone from several other countries in the late 90s. Documents uncovered by auto safety researchers found that by 1999, Firestone was aware of tire defects that killed 46 people in Venezuela. Similar reports came in from Colombia, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Thailand, where Firestone started recalling the tires in 1999 yet never notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the problem.
Instead, Firestone responded to U.S. consumer complaints and warranty claims taking the usual tack of blaming the consumer for not properly maintaining the tires or operating them in unreasonably extreme conditions.
Finally, the NHTSA concluded that the “belt wedge,” a strip of rubber located between the outer edge of two belts, was not thick enough or sufficiently strong on Wilderness AT tires made before May 1998 to resist crack formation and growth.
The findings triggered a mandatory recall of 3.5 million P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 Wilderness AT tires, slashed the market value of Bridgestone/Firestone in half, and compelled U.S. lawmakers to pass the TREAD ACT, which among other things requires automakers to notify NHTSA whenever they conduct a safety recall or other safety campaign in another country.