A 2003 Maine tire law is only one sentence long, but it has sparked a furor among the state's tire dealers that may eventually impact the nation's tire industry.
Even though the state legislature enacted the regulation in September 2003, many tire dealers only learned about it in the last few months. It states: ``A vehicle may be equipped only with tires that meet or exceed the load and speed rating of the original equipment tires.''
While the heart of the law is vehicle safety, the effects of the law-even on the popular trend of plus-sizing tires and wheels-are too restrictive on consumer choice, according to several in the tire industry. In essence, a vehicle originally equipped with high-performance tires can be fitted only with similar or higher speed-rated tires as replacements. However, ultra-high performance tires, for example, are put on as original equipment ``for the ride experience'' but aren't needed for safety, said Dick Cole, executive director of the New England Tire & Service Association (NETSA).
So Mr. Cole is at the helm of an effort to amend the law. As part of that effort, he and the association want to establish a written, industry-accepted set of recommendations for tire replacements that could be used throughout the country.
While working on the proposed recommendations, the local tire industry achieved an important victory Oct. 12 when the Maine State Police, which enforces vehicle safety laws, agreed to exempt all snow tires from the regulation. The law had prevented vehicle owners with high-speed-rated tires from using ``true/dedicated'' snow tires, which are mostly Q-rated.
``We see this (exemption) as an appropriate response to unintended consequences (of the law),'' said Dan Zielinski, vice president of communications for the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), which was involved in discussions with state officials. He said the RMA recommends replacing tires with the vehicle manufacturer's recommended speed and load rating.
However, laws for safety ``can be taken to the extreme,'' he added, noting that, for consumers to be in compliance, there would have been a supply shortage of high speed-rated snow tires.
``The next step is to try to get the industry to agree on a set of recommendations and norms for what you can and can't do (in replacing tires),'' Mr. Cole said.
He hopes that by formalizing an industry-accepted set of standards, the association can take it to the state legislature next year and convince it to pass a less restrictive law.
A formal set of tire industry recommendations will be useful when working with state officials, he said, giving the example of discussions with the Maine State Police regarding snow tires. He said the state police had ``all kinds of conversations with people in the industry and a number of people contacted them. But there was no written recommendations that could say (the state police) is wrong and the industry is right. Where is it in writing?''
The RMA has a set of industry recommendations but Mr. Cole considers them outdated. The new recommendations would address such issues as what tire applications are best in different situations, the proper type of construction and safe speed-rating applications. ``There is no uniform understanding or recommendation,'' Mr. Cole said.
He has been consulting with several in the tire industry, including the RMA and Goodyear, and is seeking the opinions of other tire companies to formalize a proposed set of recommendations.
However, Mr. Cole declined to release the proposal until NETSA votes to approve it in early December.
``We propose not just a New England set of recommendations but a national recommendation and allow it to have real teeth,'' Mr. Cole said. ``Maybe we're sticking our necks out.... But why not stand up and be counted for safety?''
In the meantime, Maine tire dealers are contending with the ramifications of the current tire law and finding they often have to explain the law to their customers.
For more than 50 years, the state has required all motor vehicles pass an annual safety inspection. An average of 1.2 million vehicles are issued inspection stickers annually, according to a state police spokesman.
Last year, mindful of some motorists' desire to plus-size their tires and wheels, the state legislature added the provision restricting the load and speed ratings of tires on cars, trucks and motorcycles.
``It takes so long to explain to (the customers). The only people privy to this are the Maine tire dealerships that pay attention to the changes or unless you have an inspection mechanic who gets notification (from the state),'' said Jim Rocha, owner of Bangor Tire Co., in Bangor. ``No one has talked about it until (information of the new law) hit the paper about a month ago.''
Mr. Cole said the law allows vehicle owners to plus-size their tires or wheels as long as the outside tire diameter is the same as recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. Also, the tire speed rating and load index must meet or exceed the manufacturer's recommendation on the vehicle door placard.
The sticking point is if a motorist has Z-rated OE tires and wants to replace them with H-rated replacement tires because they are less expensive and get higher mileage, the customer can't without failing the vehicle inspection, explained Mr. Cole.
Mr. Rocha offers state vehicle inspections at his two locations, and of the average 25 to 30 inspections conducted each week about four or five vehicles fail due to ineligible tires.
He said he doesn't disagree with the state's desire to ensure highway safety by eliminating the so-called ``super swampers''-vehicles with extreme body lifts and oversized wheels. ``But for the guy who wants bigger tires to get over the (back road) ruts, which we have a lot of up here, (the law) is too abrupt and too extreme.''
The law as it affected snow tires was a big concern. If a car has H-rated OE tires, the owner wouldn't have been able to purchase the common Q-rated snow tires.
``When you downsize the speed rating, you cut the load-carrying index,'' Mr. Rocha explained, noting that was one of the factors the state police were concerned about. ``But we told them you can adjust that with tire pressure, and the factor is so minute.''
``I think everyone is trying to be black-and-white on the issue when for 40 years it's been gray,'' said Tim Haley, general manager of Haley Tire & Service Center in Falmouth, Maine. His dealership has four locations that offer state inspections. He said not many vehicles fail the inspection ``but enough (do) to take a stance and try to explain to the consumer (the tire law).''
And while he has been told that the state police are not going to enforce the tire regulation strictly, he said there is still the liability issue. If the inspection station is lenient and issues a sticker for a vehicle with improper tires, the dealership could be liable if the vehicle gets involved in an accident.
Mr. Rocha agreed with the liability concern. He recalled warning a customer with improper tires on his vehicle who wanted an inspection.
``And he said, `Oh, you are one who has an issue with it,''' Mr. Rocha said. ``We have alienated some customers with it. Like any unfunded mandate, it costs you money to do business.''
Offering the 45-minute state inspection is for customer service rather than for profit, according to Mr. Rocha. ``It's a nuisance,'' he said, noting that the dealership receives $7 for every $12.50 inspection.
``It's a customer convenience thing. They say it can generate business for you and sometimes the inspections do generate business. But most of the cars that come in for inspection are fit for the road.''
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What the law states
``A vehicle may be equipped only with tires that meet or exceed the load and speed rating of the original equipment tires."