Contrary to a common misconception created by the recall of millions of passenger tires in 2000 and 2001, true product defects are a rarity, dozens of independent dealers told Tire Business in a recent survey.
More than two out of three tire dealers (70.7 percent) taking part in the survey said they ``seldom'' encounter a genuine product defect in the tires they purchase from manufacturers and resell to customers. A smaller number (25.8 percent) said they ``occasionally'' find a defective tire. Tread-belt separations were the defect most frequently listed, while non-uniformity in terms of roundness also was mentioned.
Tire Business conducted the non-scientific survey in June among dealerships chosen at random from across the U.S. Participants were asked to complete printed questionnaires. Fifty dealers returned completed survey forms. The questions included the following:
``Of the tires you replace, what percentage have fully worn treads?'' participating dealers were asked. Their answers ranged from a low of almost none to a high of 98 percent, with a median of about 59 percent.
``What's the most common reason for premature tire replacement?'' the survey asked dealers. ``Uneven treadwear,'' replied about half the group (48.3 percent). ``Road hazard damage,'' said another 38.4 percent. Other individuals suggested such factors as a ``lack of owner maintenance,'' ``failure to rotate'' ``consumer neglect,'' ``underinflation'' and ``shock and alignment problems.'' None picked product defects as the most common reason for having to replace tires before they're worn out.
When asked: ``Do you instruct customers in how to care for their tires in order to obtain maximum service?'' nine out of 10 participating dealers (96 percent) answered ``Yes.'' And one of only two survey participants who checked ``No'' on the questionnaire then qualified the answer by adding a notation that his dealership does tell customers about the need for proper balancing and tire rotation.
The question ``How do you handle tire registration at your dealership?'' brought a somewhat unexpected response from survey participants. A surprising three out of four dealers indicated they're fulfilling their legal obligation by providing tire buyers with a way of registering their names in order to be notified in the event of a recall.
A sizable number of respondents (40.4 percent) said they enter the buyer's name and address as well as the necessary product information on the sales invoice. Dealer John Sullivan of John L. Sullivan Inc. in Waldorf, Md., said this information is captured by his dealership's point-of-sales computer terminal and relayed directly to his tire supplier-Goodyear.
Some 34.6 percent of the survey group said they provide a postcard that customers can mail in for registration purposes. One survey respondent, Ronald C. Penepent of Ocoee Tire & Auto in Benton, Tenn., said his dealership fills out and mails registration cards for its customers.
Nevertheless, one in four dealers surveyed admitted not complying with federal rules that require retailers to provide a means for registering tire purchasers for potential recall purposes.
When asked why they were not doing so, dealers listed several reasons, among them: ``insufficient time,'' ``too much expense vs. purpose,'' ``should be left to the manufacturer,'' ``suppliers don't furnish the forms'' and ``nobody's enforcing it.''
Survey participants were assured of anonymity on this obviously sensitive subject in order that they might feel free to answer frankly.
Asked ``What's the most important factor in determining which tires customers will buy?'' one in every two respondents (51.7 percent) replied ``the dealer or sales person.''
Exactly a third of the group said ``price'' is the customer's most important consideration. A few dealers (5 percent) listed ``brand,'' and the remaining 10 percent suggested other factors such as ``road hazard warranties,'' ``tread widths'' and ``customer's typical driving conditions.''
``Is the federal government's Uniform Tire Quality Grading system useful in selling tires?'' Better than one in two participating dealers (55.1 percent) answered ``Yes.'' They offered a number of explanations, such as: ``Customers ask for it,'' ``Useful for comparing tires,'' ``People like high mileage'' and ``Customers are more knowledgeable than they were years ago.''
On the other hand, a substantial portion of the survey group (44.9 percent) was no less articulate in stating their belief that UTQG is not very useful in selling and buying tires. They wrote in comments such as:
``Manufacturers rate their own tires and some ratings are set or influenced by the retailer (such as Sears, Roebuck and Co.);''
``Most consumers ask about a tire's mileage warranty, not its UTQG rating;''
``No grading standard exists among manufacturers-it's all over the place; depending on the manufacturer;'' and
``Three out of four tire customers neither know nor care about the government's UTQG system.''
Asked ``Do you think the massive recalls of 2000 and 2001 and the number of highway deaths and injuries attributed to tire failures suggest many tires are unsafe?'' An overwhelming 92.5 percent of the dealers said ``No.''
``My opinion is that most tire problems are customer caused,'' one dealer wrote.
``There may be a few product defects from time to time, but mostly it is customers not taking care of their tires,'' said another.
What do you think were the most important causes leading to the recall of Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires?
``I'm not an engineer,'' wrote one survey participant in regard to tire-related accidents-mostly on Ford Explorers-that were blamed for 271 deaths and hundreds of injuries and led to the recall of millions of Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. ``However, my opinion is that (Ford Motor Co.'s) recommended air pressure of 26 psi on the Explorer was the leading cause.''
Still, the Goodyear dealer said he wouldn't be afraid to put those Firestone tires on his own vehicle.
One dealer summed up his opinion in a word-``lawyers.''
Another dealer cited ``poor quality control.''
Greg Martin, general manager of Miller Tire in Muncie, Ind., blamed the news media for ``pumping up 20 fatalities to more than 200 over a two-year period. What about the 10,000 rollover fatalities (recorded) every other year?'' he asked.
A dealer in Michigan theorized that the Ford Explorer should have been equipped with tires having higher than a ``C'' rating in temperature resistance-the lowest possible rating under the government's Uniform Tire Quality Grading (UTQG) system.
Judging from the problems that subsequently arose, whatever tires were selected probably should have carried at least a ``B'' and probably an ``A'' rating in their ability to stand up under high-temperature highway use, he said.