The mandated effort by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to establish tire fuel-efficiency ratings is really about one thing: Educating consumers about tires.
Certainly the agency is charged with developing an effective and accurate test for evaluating a tire's rolling resistance, which will help in reducing the country's dependence on oil. The less rolling resistance a tire has, the less fuel is needed to propel the vehicle.
But the primary reason for developing a fuel-efficiency rating is so that consumers can make informed tire buying decisions.
The agency must keep that at the forefront as it goes about deciding on the best way of communicating test results and subsequent ratings to consumers.
All the testing in the world will do little good if the reporting of rating information is confusing and difficult to understand and therefore not used.
In posting its proposed final standard on the NHTSA Web site, the agency showed it doesn't have a firm grasp on how tires are sold and how the ratings it is generating will be seen and used.
NHTSA's recommendation to place a paper or plastic label on every new replacement tire explaining the tire's fuel-efficiency, safety and durability ratings illustrates this point.
While placing a label on each tire seems logical, most tires aren't sold off the rack or displayed in showrooms. Instead, they are kept in warehouses on the premises or supplied daily by distributors. Consumers usually never see the tires until they are placed on their vehicles and by then the paper stickers are usually torn off.
So what good then does this form of communication do? The answer is very little, because consumers can't easily make comparisons between tires.
NHTSA should strongly consider the Tire Industry Association's (TIA) recommendation that the agency gather responses from at least 1,000 point-of-sale locations in multiple geographic regions to determine how consumers would find and use the rating information. This would ensure a diverse socioeconomic and ethnic sample and help the agency in designing an effective communication program.
TIA, which is positioning itself as the logical group to administer the consumer information program for NHTSA, also maintains that a combination of brochures, Internet sites and trained sales personnel is needed to help consumers understand the rating system and to guide them in making the proper tire choices.
That, too, makes sense, as long as brochures and Internet sites are updated regularly.
Getting the communications aspect of the tire fuel-efficiency ratings right is just as important as the ratings themselves.
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