Whether it's coming from tire manufacturers, tire dealers or consumer advocates, the resounding theme concerning the motorist's role in the care of tires boils down to one thing: Check the air pressure.
But many observers say that simply isn't being done. In fact, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), only one in seven motorists checks his or her tire pressure at least monthly.
Justin Ellison, owner of City Boys Tire in High Springs, Fla., estimated that only about 60 percent of his customers check their tire pressure on a regular basis. That figure saw a temporary uptick during the massive Ford Motor Co.-Firestone recalls in 2000 and 2001. ``It was incredible in that it seemed like everyone was taking notice,'' he said. ``(But) we're seeing that relaxing now.''
In a perfect world, motorists would maintain their tires to obtain maximum use. But in the real world, there are limits on consumers' willingness and ability to do that, industry observers pointed out.
The RMA has compiled a list of the most basic things consumers should do to properly maintain their tires. It was prepared as part of the RMA's National Tire Safety Week, held April 27 to May 3.
During that campaign, the RMA encouraged tire dealers to distribute tire maintenance pamphlets to consumers and even organize tire safety inspection lanes. The pamphlets, provided by the RMA, encourage motorists to monitor their tire pressure and tread depth and have regular tire rotations and wheel alignments performed.
Marvin Bozarth, a consultant to the Tire Industry Association (TIA), suggested motorists, like commercial truck drivers, do a walk-around inspection of their vehicle every day.
Guy Edington, managing director for Kumho Tire Co.'s North American Technical Center in Akron, said tire makers can build engineering capabilities into tires that will improve their performance, but engineering can't put air in the tires. He noted that just two factors largely determine how much weight a tire can support-its size and internal air pressure.
Once the tire is designed and manufactured, its size can't change. ``Pressure is the only remaining variable affecting the tire's ability to support weight,'' Mr. Edington said. ``If the inflation pressure drops, the tire's load-carrying capacity drops. So it's incumbent on someone-I'd say the motorist-to keep air in the tires.''
Failure to do so, in fact, ultimately will lead to tire failure, as many dealers and industry officials were quick to point out.
Ed Wagner, another tire industry consultant, said about 98 percent of the ``many thousands'' of tires he's examined failed prematurely due either to owner abuse or road hazard damage. Mr. Bozarth agreed, estimating that owner neglect contributes to nine out of 10 tire failures.
Other factors also play a part.
``When a tire does come out of service prematurely, I think it's unfair to automatically say it's the consumer's fault,'' cautioned Mike Wischhusen, director of industry standards and government regulations for Michelin Americas Small Tires (MAST). ``A detailed technical inspection of the tire will generally reveal the precise cause of the failure.''
Statistics aren't available as to how often abused or neglected tires contribute to traffic accidents, noted John Nielsen, director of approved auto repair, vehicle acquisition and consumer information for the American Automobile Association (AAA).
Extent of the problem
But if it's clear that so little effort can prevent so many problems, the question is: Why don't motorists check their pressure?
Harold Herzlich, a tire industry consultant based in Las Vegas, said the consumer simply doesn't fulfill his or her responsibility to maintain tires.
``The consumer, after placing the tires on the vehicle, assumes full responsibility for proper maintenance, which includes air pressure, alignment, rotation and inspection for injuries,'' he said. ``Too many failed tires are damaged by consumers who later plead ignorance to common sense tire industry maintenance requirements.''
But others contend many consumers remain unaware of the maintenance requirements of tires. ``It's a very tough challenge to communicate with consumers,'' said Alison Heiser, former vice president of marketing for MAST. ``You want them to take their tires seriously, but you don't want to scare them. So we work with the dealer, we work with the consumer and we make as much information available as possible.''
Busy schedules on the part of consumers also are a factor, she pointed out. ``If you look at the time they've got to devote to maintaining things, it's no wonder that stuff just doesn't get done,'' Ms. Heiser said.
Time may not be the only obstacle.
``Tires have been abused for years, and I don't think that will change,'' observed Dick Baumgardner, president of Tire Consultants Inc. ``I've told people at gas pumps they have dangerously underinflated tires. An air line was right there, but they drove off.''
Bruce Kaster, a plaintiffs' attorney, contends the cards are stacked against consumers when it comes to tire maintenance. As an example, he cited Ford Motor Co.'s original recommendation to inflate the tires on its Explorer to a mere 26 psi-which meant, he said, that they were nine pounds underinflated based on the vehicle's weight.
``I encourage people to have their tires checked regularly and make sure they run them at the proper inflation pressure,'' Mr. Kaster said. ``But in this case, it wouldn't have done any good because the door jam on the Explorer said to run the damn thing nine pounds underinflated.''
Indeed, many tire dealers surveyed by Tire Business felt Ford's initial recommendation of 26 psi was a major factor in the Firestone recall. Mr. Ellison of City Boys Tire said he puts 35 pounds in most sport-utility vehicle tires ``because I just know that's where it should be,'' he said.
Don Hoover, owner of Vandalia Firestone in Vandalia, Mo., also said he encourages 35 psi for SUV tires-or at least a minimum of 30 psi. Because, he said, with 26 psi, the tire can't afford to lose any more pressure-even though all tires lose pressure with time or climate changes, among other factors.
Tire Business Staff Reporter Vera Fedchenko and free-lance writer Chuck Slaybaugh contributed to this report.