A motor vehicle safety research organization with ties to plaintiffs' attorneys is urging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to consider placing an expiration date on tires.
The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) said the comments to NHTSA by Alexandria, Va.-based Strategic Safety L.L.C. were simplistic and didn't reflect the realities of the tire aging process. Strategic Safety, however, said its comments were in line with warnings issued by tire and vehicle manufacturers in the United Kingdom and Germany.
When it issued its final rule on tire testing and performance June 26, NHTSA left open indefinitely the docket for comments on the effects of aging on tire performance and the direction future research on the subject should take.
In its Sept. 17 comments to the agency, Strategic Safety said it knew of at least 20 incidents of catastrophic tread separations-all involving deaths or serious injuries-in tires six years of age or older. It attached a list detailing the accidents and said it would submit further cases as it uncovered them.
``The cases cited in the attached list...clearly indicate a problem-a problem that the industry is aware of and can solve quickly,'' said Sean Kane, partner for tires at Strategic Safety, in the Sept. 17 letter.
Mr. Kane cited the warning issued Sept. 4 by the Tyre Industry Council (TIC), a London-based organization funded by British tire manufacturers and dealers. Having found tires as old as 15 years on vehicles in spot checks in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire, the TIC urged U.K. motorists to replace all tires above 10 years old on their vehicles, and not to use ``new'' tires six years old or older.
The TIC warning in turn was based on an advisory issued in June 2001 by the British Rubber Manufacturers Association. The BRMA release identified poor maintenance, poor storage, infrequent use and environmental conditions as factors in tire aging.
``Tire aging is often identified by small cracks...appearing in the tire sidewall and other flex areas,'' the BRMA said. ``However, tire aging may not exhibit any external indications and, since there is no non-destructive test to assess the serviceability of a tire, even an inspection carried out by a tire expert may not reveal the extent of any deterioration.''
Mr. Kane also cited a warning from Volkswagen and BMW owner's manuals to replace tires every six years, regardless of wear. Decoding U.S. Department of Transportation numbers to determine the age of a tire is confusing to most motorists, he added.
``It is clearly time that tire and vehicle manufacturers stop the faÃ§ade around tire aging and blaming drivers for using `old' tires when they fail,'' he said.
He recommended NHTSA request from vehicle and tire manufacturers all lawsuits, claims, adjustments and test data regarding tires six years of age or older.
An RMA spokesman said NHTSA never suggested any sort of shelf-life grading for tires in its proposed aging test.
``It's certainly an interesting issue for debate, but it's not so easy to say that tires can only last X number of years because of issues such as different compounding and consumer maintenance,'' the spokesman said. ``Low-mileage cars still need maintenance; you wouldn't keep the same oil in your car for 10 years, and you should think of your tires in the same way. If drivers have a question about their tires, they should have them inspected.''
When asked about the BRMA and TIC warnings, the RMA spokesman said he wasn't sure what sort of discussions RMA members have with the members of the U.K. tire groups. He added that this was the first time he had heard of their warnings.