The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in line with its ongoing overhaul of federal tire safety standards, is planning to test the performance of commercial retreads against new medium truck tires.
The proposal is making some in the retreading industry nervous-partly because of the potential for increased government scrutiny and partly because of uncertainty surrounding the pending merger of the industry's two key trade associations and its effect on lobbying efforts.
Specifically, retreaders contacted for comment on the proposal said they are concerned that NHTSA could drive retreaders out of business by requiring tests they can't afford, and that the merger of the International Tire & Rubber Association with the Tire Association of North America will leave retreaders without a voice in government affairs.
However, others in the retreading industry-both within ITRA and outside the association-say these fears are unfounded, and that the merger, if anything, will create a stronger voice for retreaders in Washington.
NHTSA announced in February it would solicit bids in March for an outside contractor to test commercial retreads.
``We want to see how commercial retreads compete against the current 119 standard,'' a NHTSA spokesman said, referring to the current performance standard for new truck tires.
Impetus for the action came from the Transportation Recall Efficiency, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, which in turn was prompted by the tread separation accidents that led to the recall of 6.5 million Firestone P-metric light truck tires.
The retread testing will involve only performance testing of commercial retreads compared with new truck tire standards. Whether further testing takes place will depend on the test results plus the interest of related agencies, the spokesman said. The contract should be granted no later than early April, he added.
There are some retreaders who worry that the testing will eventually lead to a requirement to test all commercial retreads for performance-a move they claim will beggar them.
``There was some talk of high-speed wheel testing for retreads,'' said one prominent retreader who asked to remain anonymous. ``Many retreaders are very small, and any requirement like that is going to put the little guys out of business.''
The same source was concerned about the ITRA-TANA merger set for July 1, because he feared the superior size and power of the new tire association would drown out the voice of retreader members.
``ITRA represents commercial tires and retreaders. TANA primarily represents new tire dealers,'' he said.
The source feared that an ITRA-TANA merger would suppress retreaders sufficiently to make the Rubber Manufacturers Association essentially the only voice at NHTSA speaking for tires. ``TANA wanted the RMA to take care of (the TREAD Act) issue,'' he said. ``I would hate to see commercial retreaders get shafted because of the Ford-Firestone issue, which is entirely different anyway.''
Although the TREAD Act was signed into law in the fall of 2000-and has been heavily publicized in both mainstream and trade media across the U.S.-very few retreaders even know about it, let alone realize it may pertain to them, the source said.
``I talked to a guy who retreads 500 truck tires a day,'' he said. ``I asked him, `What do you think about the TREAD Act?' He answered, `I don't know what you're talking about.'''
Other people in the industry, however, think such worries are largely unfounded.
``I've heard those concerns from retreaders, and I think they are overreacting,'' said Harvey Brodsky, managing director of the Tire Retread Information Bureau.
``ITRA isn't going away,'' added Peggy Fisher, president of Fleet Tire Consulting in Rochester Hills, Mich., and a commercial tire service columnist in Tire Business. ``It's just that two associations are becoming a third association.''
ITRA and TANA are working on their position on commercial retreads for NHTSA, and the process is amicable as well as necessary, according to Roy E. Littlefield III, government affairs director for ITRA. ``It's a very healthy thing for the two sides to work on an issue this difficult,'' he said.
``We do know people at NHTSA are talking about commercial retreading, and they have been for a long time,'' Mr. Littlefield said. ``Not everybody there is talking about an industry standard.''
Ms. Fisher, who also is an ITRA director, also stressed that there is no reason at this point for worry. ``NHTSA's just commissioning a study at this point, and they have no idea where they'll go from here,'' she said. ``People should be concerned, yes. They should watch this process closely and state their position when the time comes.''
Mr. Brodsky said there's little reason to fear that NHTSA will take Draconian action against the retread industry.
``The government works in strange ways, but they're not crazy,'' he said. ``They're not going to destroy our industry, because otherwise they'd get such heat you'd think the DOT building was on fire. Who's going to destroy an industry that never harmed anybody, has done lots of good for the country and saved the government millions and millions of dollars?''
Twice in the past five years-in 1998 and 1999-NHTSA has considered a study of truck retreads in collaboration with the trucking and tire industries, but both times has backed away, citing the lack of funding. The study was to have examined the roles of high speeds and underinflation in truck tire failures, and would have involved the American Trucking Associations' Technology and Maintenance Council.