WASHINGTON-Since 1971, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has required that all new tires be registered upon sale in order to locate them in case of a recall.
Until 1982, tire dealers were responsible for mailing in the registration cards themselves for replacement tires. In that year, the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association campaigned for-and won-the right to ``voluntary'' tire registration, seeing it pass as part of the Surface Transportation Act reauthorization.
Instead of having the paperwork burden of recording and processing tire identification numbers themselves, independent dealers could satisfy the law by handing tire registration cards to tire buyers and instructing them to fill out and send in the cards.
With the massive tire recalls conducted by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co., the need to locate recalled tires and their purchasers has become clearer than ever before. That need begs the question: Just how closely do independent dealers adhere to the voluntary registration law?
Neither NHTSA nor any other organization does audits or spot checks of dealers to determine compliance with the regulation. But from the anecdotal evidence Tire Business was able to obtain, the answer to how closely dealers and other retailers comply with these registration requirements is: Not very.
``I don't know what kind of a can of worms I'd be opening up if I talked to you,'' said one New England dealer who asked not to be identified. ``But the bottom line is, 99.9 percent of us aren't doing it.''
``Gee, don't ask me please!'' added a Southwestern dealer who also asked to remain anonymous. He said his dealership doesn't hand out the registration cards, although it does keep a record of sales in its computer and on customers' invoices.
Craig Knarich owns and operates ETS Tire Service in Pinella County, Florida. ETS is a mobile tire service that serves the high-end market, including Mercedes, BMW and Porsche owners. Mr. Knarich generally warehouses about 200 high-performance tires, obtaining them from major distributors in his area.
ETS has been in business 11 years, Mr. Knarich said, but he didn't know about voluntary tire registration requirements until a short time ago. He happened to see an ad in Tire Business for CIMS Inc., the Akron-based firm that offers independent tire registration services to clients in the industry.
``I thought, `It's the law? No way!''' Mr. Knarich said. ``I have never even once, in my 11 years in the business, heard anybody tell a customer, ``Here's your (registration) card. Fill it out and send it in.' ''
While NHTSA has never made a major enforcement effort regarding voluntary registration, the results could be dire for many dealers if it did, according to CIMS President Paul Kruder. The fine under the statute is up to $1,100 per unregistered tire to a maximum of $880,000.
``The regulations apply to any tire dealer who does not own the brand he sells,'' Mr. Kruder said. ``When Sears sold only its house brand of tires, it did not have to supply the cards. But now that it sells other brands, it must.''
Mr. Kruder, who founded CIMS in 1971, said his tire registration clients account for 80 percent of the replacement tire market in the U.S. ``We are a designee of tire manufacturers and private brand owners,'' he said. ``We record whatever information is necessary to notify purchasers of tires in case of a recall. CIMS also provides a pre-addressed ``all-brand'' form that dealers can use, and which customers can mail back to CIMS' own clearinghouse, Mr. Kruder said. ``Michelin is not a client of CIMS, but most other brands are, he added.
One of CIMS's biggest clients is Ford Motor Co., which Mr. Kruder said signed a contract for tire registration even before it announced the recall of 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires May 22. ``Goodyear has its own registration system, which we're involved with,'' he said.
``Many of the more enlightened dealers offer to send their cards in bulk,'' Mr. Kruder said, but added: ``Some dealers don't do a darn thing.'' This lack of action worries Mr. Knarich. ``Nobody is aware of these cards, and nobody's going to be made aware of them `till somebody's made an example of-somebody with deep pockets.''
All tire makers and tire-related organizations say they make a constant effort to make motorists and independent dealers aware of voluntary registration.
``We constantly send out information on voluntary tire registration in our literature and in our member fax,'' said Ross Kogel, executive vice president of the Tire Association of North America.
TANA is the successor organization to the NTDRA, which successfully lobbied for voluntary registration nearly 20 years ago. ``Our role has been to disseminate information on voluntary registration, and TANA's membership is extremely well-informed,'' he said.
The Rubber Manufacturers Association publishes a bulletin, ``Did You Complete Your Obligations Under the Law?'' Dated Feb. 26, 1999, it describes in detail the obligations of tire manufacturers, distributors and dealers regarding both tire registration and tire warranties, and gives contact addresses and numbers for 13 different tire makers should dealers have questions on either subject.
Several of the larger tire dealer and distributor networks said they strive to make sure voluntary tire registration works, and have plans to make it work better.
``We have a policy to get those cards to customers,'' said Steve Steffens, vice president of marketing for Manassas, Va-based Merchant's Inc., where the cards go to customers at checkout as part of their invoice. But the company plans to put in place a point-of-sale registration system in which tires are automatically registered via the corporate computer system. The company plans to institute this plan within the next 12 to 18 months, ``but unfortunately it's not an easy thing to build,'' he said.
Morgan Tire & Auto Inc., based in Clearwater, Fla., is ``a patchwork of companies'' which soon is to consolidate its 600-plus retail stores under the Tires Plus name, according to Dan Hennelly, Tires Plus president of retail sales. As of Jan. 1, all Morgan-owned stores went to one standard invoice, which includes point-of-sale registration and a list of all the national warranties for the tires the company sells.
``The reason we didn't have automatic registration in our old point-of-sale computer software is that there were three different POS systems in our companies,'' Mr. Hennelly said. ``This way, we now have one central system and a process we can audit. Speaking of the future, we plan to have even more of a controlled process in which it's all electronic.''
The process of rolling out the new invoice to all Tires Plus stores took about four or five months, he said.
Heafner Tire Group Inc., the Charlotte, N.C.-based distribution giant, makes tire registration forms available to its dealers ``for whatever they sell in the marketplace,'' said Senior Vice President Dan Brown. Heafner also posts information on voluntary registration periodically on its Web site and sends out that information on its ``B2B'' software.
``We're looking to create some sort of electronic registration capability,'' Mr. Brown said. But Heafner has no way to check whether its dealers are complying with the law, because ``all our dealers are independent business people.''
Mr. Knarich of ETS, meanwhile, is leaving nothing to chance. He now includes registration cards along with warranties, tire gauges and other items as part of his package to customers.
``I'm doing it because it's the law, but it's also good customer service,'' he said. ``That's the big thing now-people want to know if their tires are going to be recalled.''