In 2000, tire industry news was dominated by two items: Bridgestone/Firestone's recall of 14.4 million tires, and the legislation that recall inspired-the Transportation Recall Efficiency, Accountability and Documentation Act.
The TREAD Act remained at the top of industry concerns in 2001 and showed no signs of losing prominence in 2002, as tire dealers, manufacturers and users alike faced the issuance of the first safety provisions mandated by the measure.
Perhaps the most worrisome proposal for the tire industry emanating from the act was the one for revised tire performance testing of passenger and light truck tires, issued Feb. 28 on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site and in the March 5 Federal Register.
Tire makers knew trouble was brewing in that document when NHTSA said bluntly that one-third of the tires on the road today likely would fail the revised tests the agency proposed.
Such a statement was utterly unfair and inaccurate, the Rubber Manufacturers Association stated in its comments.
``The tire testing data released by NHTSA is the percentage of tires that did not meet the agency's...proposed, unvalidated tests,'' the RMA said.
NHTSA should at least, it argued, exempt bias tires, snow tires, speed-restricted tires, temporary spares and some trailer tires from the tests.
The association estimated the annual cost of compliance with the testing rule would be more than $1.5 billion the first year and more than $400 million annually thereafter.
Taking up the exemption cry for their own sakes were Hoosier Racing Tire Corp., Denman Tire Corp. and Specialty Tires of America Inc., which got members of Congress to intercede for them.
The proposed tests, they argued, would make it impossible to continue manufacturing the bias-ply specialty tires that are their bread and butter.
The final performance testing rule had yet to be issued at the end of the year.
NHTSA also gave the auto and tire industries a last TREAD Act surprise in the Dec. 5 Federal Register-a final rule setting forth conditions under which the agency could order manufacturers to accelerate a safety recall or remedy.
While the RMA and Tire Industry Association still were studying the rule in mid-December, the RMA was pleased that the agency took its suggestion to specify that replacement tires must have the same or higher load indexes and speed ratings as recalled tires.
One TREAD Act-related final rule that was issued in 2002 sets forth requirements for the phase-in of tire pressure monitoring devices on new cars.
That rule, issued May 30, allows vehicle manufacturers to use either monitoring systems that record tire pressure directly or those that record them indirectly as a function of a vehicle's anti-lock braking system.
The Office of Management and Budget forced NHTSA to rewrite the rule to incorporate indirect systems, and Joan Claybrook-president of Public Citizen and herself a former NHTSA administrator-was livid over this. Ms. Claybrook said the rule ``perpetrates a fraud upon consumers,'' and accused the OMB of kowtowing to the auto industry, which championed the use of the cheaper but less effective indirect systems.
While the tire industry itself preferred direct monitoring devices, it was more concerned about another aspect of the rule, which stated that direct monitoring devices did not have to warn drivers until tire inflation pressures had fallen 25 percent or more below the vehicle manufacturer's recommended cold inflation pressure. For indirect systems, a 30-percent differential was allowed.
The RMA-with the full backing of TIA and the Tire and Rim Association-petitioned NHTSA for a minimum reserve inflation pressure requirement to make up for the shortfall allowed by the tire monitoring rule.
Not to do so, the association warned, would endanger moto-rists lulled into a false sense of security about severely underinflated tires.
While the agency hasn't yet ruled on the petition, the tire industry won powerful backers for the reserve inflation pressure rule: Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman and ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and both major sponsors of the TREAD Act.
The final NHTSA rule revising labeling requirements for passenger and light truck tires, issued Nov. 18, received a split decision from the industry.
The RMA liked the provision standardizing the placement and design of tire pressure and load placards inside vehicles.
As for the requirement to mold the tire identification number on both sides of the tire, the RMA opposed this in the proposed rule, saying it put workers at risk to have to enter a hot tire mold just to change the date code.
NHTSA in the final rule required the date code on only one side, and the association withdrew its objections.
TIA, on the other hand, said the TIN-on-two-sides requirement would cause financial hardship only for retreaders, and this would become far worse if NHTSA eventually requires the number on both sides of medium truck tires.
The association did, however, praise the agency for agreeing to keep maximum air pressure, material and ply information on the sidewall.
The RMA and TIA were equally disappointed in the ``early warning'' rule issued by the agency July 10, with an Aug. 9 effective date. This rule governs the types of information auto and tire manufacturers must submit as possible early indications of product defects.
Along with Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., the two associations objected to NHTSA's refusal to allow business confidentiality for any information passed on to the agency under early warning requirements.
Cooper said it was particularly vulnerable to having its larger competitors discover its business and production plans.
The RMA did praise the final rule for narrowing the definition of ``field reports'' that must be submitted to the agency, as well as the postponement of certain reporting requirements for truck tire manufacturers.
TIA, however, was unhappy that consumer complaints and warranty adjustments must be submitted under the rule.
``NHTSA is insuring that tire dealers will be less likely to appease dissatisfied customers in cases where tire abuse is apparent,'' the association said.
Regardless of how tire manufacturers felt about the early warning rule, there were indications that their own in-house early warning systems-set up in response to the Firestone recall and the TREAD Act-were working just fine.
Chief among these was Continental Tire North America's Aug. 20 decision to recall more than 595,000 P275/60R17 Continental- and General-brand tires that were original equipment on Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators.
Conti's analysis of new and returned tires and of warranty, property damage and injury claims showed the tires might not be performing up to company standards, the tire maker told NHTSA.
Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, took the recall as proof that the TREAD Act is working.
``This is a good example of what the early warning system is supposed to do, which is warn motorists of a safety defect before it becomes a disaster,'' Mr. Ditlow said.