No one knows for sure yet what has caused the rash of tire tread separations and resulting tragedies in recent months, but a leading suspect is underinflation.
That's what makes Ford Motor Co.'s recent announcement that it will equip all of its sport-utility vehicles and light trucks by 2005 with tire pressure monitors so significant.
Not only will the presence of monitors make these vehicles safer, but the announcement could mark the beginning of widespread use of run-flats, once the cost of these tires falls to more competitive levels.
Run-flats require a monitor to warn drivers if tire pressure is low.
Until this past summer—when headlines about lost treads and vehicles rolling over shocked the public—tire inflation was thought of more as a maintenance issue than one of safety.
But now most people know that a tire run underinflated for long periods of time can potentially experience tread separation, depending on how severely the tire has been abused.
That makes the timing ripe for auto makers and consumers to more readily accept the benefits tire pressure monitors can provide.
Underinflation is a widespread problem. A recent Tire Business survey of 766 vehicles, conducted by this newspaper's independent tire dealer readers, found that nearly two out of three cars, light trucks and SUVs had at least one significantly underinflated tire.
What's more, the survey found that 40 percent of these vehicles had four underinflated tires, with at least one tire 5 pounds or more below the recommended psi.
The move by Ford won't necessarily eliminate the tire inflation problem, but it will alert drivers of its pickups and SUVs when pressure is low. Then it's up to those drivers to do something about it.
Still, the power of such information should serve consumers well. Beyond the safety factor, properly inflated tires last longer and offer greater fuel economy, reducing operating costs.
The time to install tire pressure monitors in vehicles has arrived. Let's hope consumers embrace the concept.