Despite years of study that point to a mounting toll of deaths and injuries attributed to aged tires, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has refused to issue a warning to consumers on the issue.
"We are extraordinarily disappointed by the fact that they are saying, 'We know this is a safety problem,' but they won't tell consumers," said auto safety expert Sean Kane.
As tires age, they can dry out and become brittle, leading to potential catastrophic tire tread separations. Kane's private research firm Safety Research & Strategies has so far tracked 167 vehicle crashes it attributes to aged tires, with 192 injuries and 139 fatalities. "An old tire is like a ticking time bomb in many ways," said Kane. "You don't know what's going on inside it. That's what makes it so dangerous."
NHTSA has known about the risks of aged tires for years, and in a 2007 report to Congress the agency acknowledged that "tire aging is a serious safety issue." NHTSA's report noted that insurance statistics from a number of states showed 84 percent of tire-related claims were for "tires over 6 years old." NHTSA refused a request, however, from Ford Motor Co. to impose a six-year shelf life on tires, based on the company's independent research.
"We have rejected that notion," said NHTSA spokesperson Ray Tyson, pointing to the fact that some tire and auto manufacturers have issued their own shelf life recommendations for tires, which he said is "sufficient." Bridgestone/Firestone, Michelin and other tire manufacturers have issued bulletins recommending a 10-year shelf life for tires. Auto companies, such as Ford, Chrysler and Toyota, have issued 6-year recommendations.
Tyson said NHTSA is currently in the process of developing a federal standard on aged tires for manufacturers based on tires that have been artificially aged. "What that would do is simulate the changes, the metamorphosis that takes place in a tire over a period of time," said Tyson.
Meanwhile, however, NHTSA turned down a request by Kane's group in 2004 to issue an advisory that would at least warn consumers on the risks of aged tires. "It's known to everyone but the American consumer," said Kane. "They've done actually a good job in coming up with testing and so forth, but what we are seeing a real lack of is a translation from what they do know to some kind of policy initiative that helps protect consumers."
Tyson said NHTSA has instead focused on alerting the public on the general issue of tire maintenance. "We have got a very aggressive campaign to keep the public aware of the need to properly maintain tires," said Tyson. "We do not view a single tire problem in isolation; we don't view aging in isolation."