A consumer safety group is petitioning the federal government to require easy-to-read "born-on" dates for car and truck tires, citing 50 crashes resulting in 37 fatalities caused by older tires with very little wear and tear, according to the Detroit News
newspaper.As part of a petition sent on Nov. 5 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), SRS Inc., a Massachusetts auto-safety research firm, provided analysis from crashes that involved different makes of tires by most leading manufacturers, including Continental, Dunlop, Firestone, General, Goodyear, Goodrich, Kelley, Michelin, Pirelli, and Uniroyal.According to Sean Kane, president of SRS, tire performance can start to degrade after six years — even if the tires have not been used — because of the rubber's age. "It's an invisible hazard," Kane said. "The industry knows a lot about it, and they have recommendations that they've hidden from the public for years. Just about every other product, from food to paint, has an expiration date on it." In many of the accidents documented by SRS, tires with little wear in the tread suddenly failed. The petition cites a July 2003 crash involving a 1997 Toyota 4Runner in San Bernardino, Calif. Three weeks after a Toyota dealer performed service on the vehicle, rotating an original spare tire onto the right rear wheel, the tread separated at highway speed, resulting in a rollover. A young mother died from head injuries in that incident. In a September 1999 crash in Michigan's Ingham County, a Geo Tracker rolled after a separation in the tread, leaving a man with a severe head injury and permanently unable to work. The driver was on his way to the tire store after putting his son's original unused spare tire on the SUV to replace a flat tire. In formal comments filed with the agency last year, Kane noted warnings issued by a tire industry group to consumers about the likelihood of older tires losing their strength. The Tyre Industry Council, a nonprofit organization in the United Kingdom that is funded by the tire industry and tire retailers to promote tire safety among consumers, warned in 2003 that motorists should replace tires that were more than 10 years old, regardless of wear. The council said tire components dry with age and can separate. Anti-aging chemicals in tires are active only when a tire is in use, the council said. The council went on to say that spare tires, tires in storage or on a shelf, or tires that spend a long time on a trailer or a recreational vehicle run the risk of premature aging. In the United States, consumers and tire dealers must decipher part of a serial number engraved on one side of a tire to determine the date it was manufactured. But there are no set recommendations on how old is too old for a tire. Donald Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, a Washington lobbying group, said the tire industry was conducting research on tire aging, but there is no data to suggest any specific age makes a tire less sturdy. Tire makers are concerned that putting an expiration date on tires would give consumers a false sense of security that younger tires are safe, regardless of driving conditions, maintenance or wear. "We've got safety concerns," Shea said. "But we would like to make a decision based on data." Kane urged NHTSA administrator Jeffrey Runge to issue an advisory to consumers as the agency considers the petition. NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the agency had not yet had a chance to review the petition and could not comment. By law, NHTSA officials have 120 days to reject or accept it. Tyson said NHTSA is conducting research on tire aging at its testing facility in Ohio. Researchers are trying to come up with procedures to replicate the natural aging process. When its research is complete, NHTSA expects to include some kind of aging test in its tire manufacturing standards. Kane is not alone in considering tire aging an important safety issue. Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator who heads Public Citizen, a consumer group based in Washington, said Congress called for tougher tire-aging improvements in the TREAD Act, the legislation passed following the recall of Firestone tires. Claybrook said it was clear that tire materials degrade over long periods of time. NHTSA should consider consumer advisories and improved labeling, as well as limits on how old a tire can be when it is sold. "I just don't think people should be selling older tires," Claybrook said. Although U.S. consumers have paid little attention to the age of tires, overseas tire manufacturers and auto companies have tried to warn consumers about the dangers of older tires. The British Rubber Manufacturers Association in 2001 issued a recommendation that "unused tyres should not be put into service if they are over 6 years old and that all tyres should be replaced after 10 years from the date of their manufacture." Volkswagen AG, BMW AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and Mercedes-Benz warn U.S. consumers about aging tires. In its owner's manuals, Volkswagen warns motorists that old tires can fail in use, causing loss of vehicle control and personal injury. They are advised to replace tires after six years, regardless of wear.