A safety research group with ties to the legal community, citing new evidence of highway fatalities and injuries, is urging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to begin the rulemaking process that would mandate expiration dates for tires.
Rehoboth, Mass.-based Safety Research & Strategies (SRS) Inc.-the successor company to Strategic Safety L.L.C., which originally petitioned NHTSA in September 2003 about the tire aging issue-sent NHTSA a supplemental filing Nov. 5 outlining at least 37 highway fatalities and 35 serious injuries it said can be traced to tread belt separations in overly aged tires.
The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), however, warned that the lack of hard data on the effects of tire aging, as well as the variables involved, would make such a rulemaking speculative at best.
The nearly 50 accidents detailed to date by SRS are ``undoubtedly an under-representation of the scope and magnitude of the total problem,'' said SRS President Sean Kane in his letter to NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge. ``However, the cases identified offer a glimpse into the types of aged tire failures seen in the real world environment, and they clearly point to a disturbing trend.''
As long as they have acceptable tread depth and no visible defects, tires-especially spares and used tires-suffering from serious age degradation are put into service regularly, Mr. Kane wrote.
``Unfortunately, consumers today are no better informed about tire age factors than they were pre-Firestone,'' he said, referring to the recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT P-metric light truck tires in 2000.
An examination of the age-related tire accidents ``almost all demonstrate that consumers were exercising reasonable judgment in the absence of appropriate or meaningful guidelines from vehicle and tire manufacturers or the agency,'' Mr. Kane said.
Mr. Kane was harshly critical of the RMA in his letter, saying the association ``reluctantly addressed the tire age hazard internally but never disclosed this draft to the public.''
An RMA spokesman acknowledged that association officials and members wrote an internal memo on tire aging after considerable discussion of the issue but concluded there was simply insufficient information to say whether a regulation was warranted.
``Why would we disseminate a draft of something that isn't final?'' the spokesman asked.
The RMA would be skeptical of a tire-aging rule, even if there was more complete information on the subject, the spokesman added. ``The date of manufacture is already on every tire,'' he said. ``Any consumer who doesn't know where to find it can certainly ask the dealer for help.''
Furthermore, a tire expiration date could lead consumers to think erroneously that their tires would always be safe to use until that date, the spokesman said.
``Knowing what we know about tire maintenance, we can only figure that a lot of drivers would run their tires into the ground,'' the spokesman said.
Reached at his office, Mr. Kane said he had no idea when NHTSA would reply to the SRS petition. (The agency rarely gives indications as to when it will reply to petitions.) He added that he was talking to several senators about a possible tire-aging bill, including Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. Sen. DeWine had included a tire expiration date provision in a larger motor safety bill earlier this year but dropped it after discussions with representatives from the tire industry.
``We know this is a complex issue and that tires age for a lot of different reasons,'' Mr. Kane said. ``But the safety implications of tire aging simply can't be ignored.''
A spokeswoman for Sen. DeWine's office said he hasn't yet set his legislative agenda for the next Congress but added that the tire aging issue is still very important to him.
SRS said it provides research, investigation, analysis and strategies on safety matters, with a particular specialty in motor vehicle issues but also including consumer, industrial, farm and construction product safety. The company lists attorneys, engineering firms, supplier companies, media and government among its clients.