Perhaps most people don't think of tires as essential to their daily well-being. But few things are more vital to maintaining our collective standard of living than those marvelously designed-yet often taken-for-granted-products known as tires.
Probably no other technical achievement has impacted Western society more profoundly than the commercial introduction of the pneumatic tire more than a century ago. The ``reinvention'' of the air-filled tire by Belfast, Ireland, veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop in 1888-some 43 years after Robert W. Thomson of Middlesex, England, patented it but found little demand for such tires-changed not only the way people of that day traveled but also where and how we live today.
Virtually everything we eat, wear or otherwise consume now comes to our door by a rubber-tired vehicle. What's more, if it were not for the pneumatic rubber tire, highway transportation-and modern life as we know it-would not be possible.
Our so-called ``Automotive Age'' owes its existence in no small way to the pneumatic tire's superior rolling and shock-absorbing capabilities over previous generations of solid rubber tires. The potent combination of the internal combustion engine and the pneumatic tire, which began in the early 1900s, revolutionized society and ushered in many of the benefits we now enjoy.
Increased mobility made possible by the pneumatic-tired automobile has, for example, permitted urban populations to spread into suburbs rather than having to crowd together in cities to be close to the workplace. Family diets no longer were limited to whatever produce happened to be in season and available locally.
Millions of people in North America and elsewhere began to draw a livelihood from jobs directly related to or otherwise dependent on motor travel. The almost universal popularity of motoring has resulted in such innovations as the commercial trucking industry, our national highway system, shopping centers, tourism and national parks.
Today-for the first time in history-the typical American family has more vehicles at its disposal than licensed drivers. According to a recently released government study, the U.S., with a population of about 290 million people in 107 million households, has approximately 191 million licensed drivers and some 204 million passenger cars and light trucks. This amounts to about 1.9 such vehicles for every 1.8 drivers per household. Collectively, American motorists travel more than 2.4 trillion highway miles annually, individually putting nearly 12,000 miles on their respective passenger vehicles.
Just how much daily life has changed in the last 112 years only can be appreciated by examining what society was like before Mr. Dunlop's pneumatic tire found acceptance-first on the bicycle of that day and subsequently on the newfangled motor car.
Prior to the modern automotive era, people seldom left their native towns or farms because travel was difficult even for short distances. Vacation travel was a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and leisured. It simply wasn't an option for most working people. The ``practical'' world consisted of the distance they could travel in a day or two by whatever mode of transportation happened to be available.
Railroads offered the only means of long-distance travel by land, and the horse furnished most day-to-day transportation. Even in Mr. Dunlop's native British Isles, where railroads were commonplace long before they were established in North America, many people lived out their lives never having glimpsed the ocean or the beauty of the English countryside.
For most people, life's choices were few. Even basic living conditions frequently were dictated by a person's place of birth or employment. In rural areas, generation after generation lived and died in sleepy hamlets, where the same families intermarried, sometimes with unfortunate genetic consequences.
Those born to cities often were obliged to live in dingy industrial sections in order to be near the factories where they worked. With no suburbs in those days, the best neighborhoods frequently were those spared by the prevailing winds, which carried soot and industrial fumes over the homes and yards of the less affluent.
With the turn of the century, pneumatic-tired vehicles began widening the horizons of average people and altering their way of life. For the first time, routes were adequately mapped and distances plotted between places that previously had held little relevance for a less-mobile population.
With widespread use of the automobile came the need for improved roads and sturdier bridges, thereby creating additional means of employment. New service industries sprang up around the automobile and tourism. Road signs went up, and many cities and towns began to rely on the money brought in by visiting motorists.
Gradually, cities themselves began to sprawl as an increasing number of residents built homes and sought different lifestyles in the suburbs.
The revolution in transportation, created by the automobile, meant increased freedom of movement and better living conditions for many. But it also brought sudden growth and unanticipated problems, such as traffic deaths and highway litter, to suburban and rural communities.
By 1934, traffic fatalities in the U.S. had soared to 36,101, amounting to 16.7 deaths per 100 million miles traveled-the highest death rate per mile in automotive history. Fortunately, by 1944, this number had declined to 11.5 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, and by 1953 it had dropped to seven deaths per 100 million miles traveled.
In terms of total numbers, however, traffic deaths rose along with the increased volume of vehicles on the nation's roadways. In 1968, some 55,000 Americans were killed in auto accidents, and 2 million were injured. And as late as 1994, some government safety officials worried that the number of auto fatalities in the U.S. eventually would reach 100,000.
Thankfully, this hasn't happened. In fact, auto travel has become safer over time, thanks to such innovations as seatbelts, air bags and other improvements in vehicle and highway design. Yet public concern over auto safety is anything but a thing of the past-and understandably so.
Auto accidents still are the leading cause of death for people age 4 to 33, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Traffic crashes in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available, claimed the lives of 42,815 while an additional 2.93 million people were injured. That amounts to about 1.51 fatalities and 103 injured persons per 100 million miles of travel, the DOT said.
Recently, attention has been focused on the safety of tires following recalls in 2000 and 2001 of some 17.2 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires and accusations that tire failures, primarily on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles, had led to rollover accidents resulting in 271 reported traffic deaths and more than 800 injuries.
The public controversy surrounding history's largest tire recall ultimately has led to an avalanche of new government regulations that will profoundly impact tire makers and tire dealers alike.
Meanwhile, daily news reports of deaths and injuries attributed to alleged tire failures have made the motoring public acutely aware of how much depends on just four hand-sized patches of tire rubber that unite their vehicles with the road.
Motorists everywhere have gained new respect for the critical role tires play in assuring their safety. As a result, many have concerns and some have questions. It is precisely such concerns and questions that Tire Business will address on the pages to follow.
It is hoped that the information in this issue will assist tire dealers and other readers in finding answers to these questions and in separating the truth from false perceptions where tires are concerned.