CLEVELAND (Oct. 22, 2001) — Donald Shea's life as president and CEO of the Rubber Manufacturers Association hasn't been quite the same since Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced its massive tire recall in August 2000.
At the time, he was on the third, and what turned out to be the last, day of his vacation. As the recall has unfolded, Mr. Shea has seen clearly how the RMA has fulfilled its role as “representing the interests of the members better than they can do individually,” he said Oct. 16 in his keynote address at the ACS Rubber Division meeting and Rubber Expo '01 in Cleveland.
Before the recall, the tire industry was “below the radar” in terms of public recognition. But that changed in a hurry. “We moved to front and center position, perhaps more so than at any time in the industry's history,” Mr. Shea said. “The tire recall was top of mind in everyday conversation.”
It became clear, he said, that it wasn't just a problem for Bridgestone/Firestone, but for the tire industry as a whole. “People were asking, 'Are tires safe?' Not, 'Is that brand safe?'”
Given that type of public outcry, Congress went to work as it almost never has in the past. With the recall happening in early August last year, congressional hearings started Sept. 6 and five days later the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act was introduced. It was passed in mid-October and then signed by President Clinton on Nov. 11. “Congress doesn't move that fast,” Mr. Shea said, adding: “Congress moved that fast.”
The RMA quickly decided cooperation with the legislative authorities was the best approach.
“We could not be seen as anti-customer. We could not be seen as anti-safety,” Shea said. “We could not be seen as anti-product quality.”
But at the same time, the tire industry needed the RMA to represent its interests “and not roll over.”
“We didn't shy away from making our case,” Mr. Shea said. By doing so, he said the RMA was able to move Congress away from some potentially “draconian measures” in the TREAD Act. “We needed to be in there helping to shape what Congress was deciding. We took it upon ourselves that, if they were going to craft a responsible piece of legislation, we were going to have to help them shape it.”
The signing by President Clinton wasn't the end of the RMA's involvement—it just meant the focus was shifted away from Congress to regulatory bodies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The RMA wants to make sure that the final regulations that come out of the TREAD Act are reasonable and responsible.
The RMA's position was grounded on three main principles, according to Mr. Shea.
First was a continuing commitment to consumer safety and product quality. “We should be damn proud of the products we make and we should tell people about it,” he said.
For 30 years, the RMA has promulgated a tire safety message, and did not just ramp up the campaign in response to the recall. Even with all the hoopla regarding the recall, “more than half of Americans still don't know how to take care of a tire,” he said.
The RMA has a strong case for telling consumers to change their ways. Basically, taking care of tires is safer, more economical because tires will last longer, and environmentally friendly because gas mileage will improve, he said. A recent NHTSA survey found that 27 percent of vehicles on the road in the U.S. had at least one tire underinflated, with the rate rising to 33 percent of sport-utility vehicles. “This is real world stuff where we can help,” Mr. Shea said.
The second principle of the RMA's actions is not to leave everything to NHTSA.
The agency is planning to introduce its own tire safety campaign, and Mr. Shea said his group will see if it can work with NHTSA on the program. He said it could be like an early 1980s effort when he was with the American Brewers Association, and it worked with NHTSA on developing the “Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign. “We want to make sure we weigh in with our concerns,” he said.
The third part of the RMA's plan is to remain committed to contributing to congressional oversight.
Now that the TREAD Act has been put in place, legislators must give the law time to take hold. “We're not prepared to support further legislation,” Mr. Shea said, noting that nine of the 12 rules that will come from the act affect the tire industry.
He commented specifically on a couple of the rules that will impact tire makers. Regarding the early warning system where tire makers are to provide data to try to point to potential problem areas, he said NHTSA's objective should be to make it a focused system rather than something too broad. “If you just have a data dump, it's more likely to obscure data related to the issue than to bring it out,” he said.
About new tire testing standards, Mr. Shea said they are long overdue. He said the RMA petitioned two years ago for a change because the current standards are more than 30 years old and were put in place before radial tire use was prevalent. But the new test must show how a tire will perform in a real-world system, he added.
“This is not a problem product,” he said of tires. People must be educated to check their tires just as they do their oil and windshield wiper fluid. “It's not about winning, it's more about doing the right thing. We will have the TREAD Act and we will have the regulations. Now let's make sure the regulations accomplish what they are intended to.”