The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act is one of the most sweeping pieces of tire and auto safety legislation ever passed, second only to the original Highway Safety Act of 1966.
It also is one of the most expedited bills in recent history, racing through the House and Senate in the fall of 2000, only a few short weeks after the House and Senate Commerce Committees began hearings on the controversy involving Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport-utility vehicles and the recall of Bridgestone/Firestone-made Firestone light truck tires.
``2000 was a year to remember for the industry,'' said Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), at the 2001 Clemson Tire Industry Conference. ``We went from a business community totally below the radar screen to one that was on the 24-hour news.''
Despite the accelerated legislative pace and the glare of publicity, Mr. Shea said, the industry was able to work with Congress to obtain the fairest, least onerous bill it could under the circumstances. ``I never saw an industry that acted as cohesively as this one did,'' he said at the conference.
Of course the tire industry's labors didn't end with the mere passage of the TREAD Act. The new law mandated the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to promulgate 12 new vehicle safety rulemakings, nine of which either involved or were specifically directed at tires.
The most recent of these-revised testing and performance requirements for new passenger and light truck tires-was issued in June with an effective date of June 1, 2007. Also, tire, auto and parts makers must begin submitting data under NHTSA's ``early warning'' information collection program by Dec. 1, while car makers initially were to start phasing in the first part of the agency's tire pressure monitoring system requirements this Nov. 1.
However, the Nov. 1 deadline for installing tire pressure monitors in new cars was made moot when a federal appeals court in August overturned NHTSA's earlier ruling and sent it back to the agency for reconsideration.
NHTSA has since decided it won't appeal the court's ruling.
The court's action was in response to a lawsuit filed by several public advocacy groups that had objected to a portion of NHTSA's ruling. That ruling gave auto makers the option of using so-called indirect monitoring systems that rely on the vehicle's antilock braking system to detect when tire pressure falls below acceptable levels.
Those groups and much of the tire industry had earlier contended such monitoring systems, which depend on wheel-rotation speed as a means of measuring tire pressure, would be inadequate to protect motorists-particularly should all of the vehicle's tires lose air at relatively the same rate.
The RMA has serious questions regarding all these rulemakings, and it's far from the only one.
``The process is still very much in play,'' Mr. Shea said regarding the ultimate effect of the TREAD Act, but he added that two general observations can be made.
``The first is that the government will be the repository of vast quantities of information from tire manufacturers, auto makers and various suppliers,'' he said. ``The second is that the industry will have to bear the rising costs for new testing requirements. However you look at it, the TREAD Act will cost the industry more money.''
Regarding the new tire testing regulation, Mr. Shea said the RMA was still studying it. ``Our early reaction is that the rule is not everything we asked for, so we're looking at what we didn't get, what the rule requires and how severe are the impacts,'' he said. ``There has to be some sort of distinction between enhancing safety and the purported ability to enhance safety.''
Few people contacted by Tire Business were willing to address the TREAD Act in general, since the rulemakings emanating from it are still so new.
Regarding the early warning regulations, however, some were quite vocal, although again the full effects of that rule are many months away from becoming apparent.
``As far as the early warning rule goes, the larger tire manufacturers through the RMA have been cooperating with us in terms of developing the rule,'' said Kenneth Weinstein, NHTSA associate administrator for enforcement.
``They've requested some reconsideration issues, they've asked for some interpretations, and we've been working with them as we have been working with other elements of the motor vehicle industry in terms of developing a rule that is not overly burdensome and yet will provide good data to us.''
Already one benefit from the early warning rule is making itself felt, according to Mr. Weinstein.
``Manufacturers are being forced to look at data they might not have looked at before, because they have to prepare it to give it to us,'' he said. ``We fully expect that in gathering that data, they will identify defects and do recalls even before we have to identify them. In other words, they'll say, `We've noticed something.'''
Indeed, the 600,000-tire recall Continental Tire North America instigated in August 2002-involving 17-inch Continental ContiTrac AW and General Grabber AW radials-happened, some observers speculate, largely because of the internal, early warning system adopted by the tire maker in anticipation of NHTSA's early warning requirements.
``Early warning will be so successful,'' said Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. ``It is so successful that you're seeing success before it takes effect.''
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, was somewhat less sanguine about the early warning rule and left no doubt as to whom she blamed for that.
``If done right, it will help consumers,'' Ms. Claybrook said. ``If done wrong, it will just cause more undermining of safety. Tire manufacturers themselves are resisting major upgrades in tires and the tire safety standard NHTSA put out. They want warranty data kept secret, but it's not as if they don't know exactly what each other is doing. It's only the public that's kept uninformed.''
Ms. Claybrook's comments threw into relief the deep gulf of suspicion between consumer advocates and the tire industry-particularly when compared with the comments of Mr. Shea, who sees the early warning standard in a very different light.
The RMA has petitioned NHTSA for confidentiality of certain early warning information which the industry believes would be disastrous if it ever saw the public light.
``In itself, the data collection requirement is neither a negative nor a positive,'' Mr. Shea said. ``It's an incipient data collection mechanism, with which we will comply, and about which we have two ongoing concerns.
``The first is whether the agency will decipher the data intelligently,'' he said. ``The second is that we are concerned that Congress did not intend the early warning system to be a fishing expedition for plaintiffs' attorneys.
``It is obvious in the language of the bill that the early warning data is to be kept confidential. That is very clear language to us.''