May 9, 2008 -- Some of the biggest tire retailers in the U.S. are selling tires that are well beyond the age limit recommended by consumer groups and some automakers, according to the results of a hidden camera investigation by "20/20" and ABC News affiliates around the country.
Research and tests show that as tires age, they begin to dry out and become potentially dangerous, leading to calls for a six-year age limit for tires from Ford Motor Co. and other car companies.
"20/20" teamed up with our ABC News affiliates to see if tires older than six years were being sold as "new" by major tire retailers. Unlike most consumers, we knew how to read the industry's convoluted date code, which reveals the week and year when a tire was made.
In San Francisco, Calif., reporters from KGO-TV found a tire made in 1999 and two from 2002 being sold as new by Goodyear, the seventh largest tire retailer in the U.S.
In Indianapolis, Ind., affiliate WRTV-TV went tire shopping at Wal-Mart, the country's third largest tire seller, and found a tire made in 2001 and one from 1999. In Orlando, Fla., affiliate WFTV-TV also found two aged tires dating back to 1999 and 2000 for sale at a Wal-Mart store.
At Sears, the fifth largest tire retailer in the U.S., our undercover "20/20" shoppers found nearly a dozen aged tires being sold as new as part of a special "manager's clearance sale." At three different stores in New Jersey, we found tires ranging from seven years old to one that was manufactured 12 years ago in 1996.
At a Sear's store in Watchung, N.J., a salesman warned us before we purchased a 2002 tire, saying, "You're supposed to get rid of them every six or seven years...no matter what condition it is." He, however, still sold us the tire, saying to only use it as a spare. At the Sears stores we visited in Union and Jersey City, N.J., we were told the aged tires we purchased were safe.
At at Sears store in Houston, Texas, ABC News affiliate KTRK-TV also found an aged tire dating back to 2001.
In response to our findings, Sears released a statement saying, "It is unusual that there would be tires that old in our stores. We follow an inventory process of first in, first out, and we turn our tire inventory an average of more than three times a year. We note that there is a difference of opinion in the tire industry (the Tire Industry Association, RMA and the major tire manufacturers) about the service-life limits of tires. The safety of our customers is a top priority for Sears, and we'll continue to work with all interested parties to push for a consensus on tire service limits. Consistent maintenance, proper inflation and regular inspection for tread wear patterns and damage are the keys to good tire performance. For consumers who are concerned about the age or condition of their tires, it is recommended they let us evaluate their tires regularly, which we'll do free of charge."
Goodyear, Wal-Mart and the U.S. tire industry trade association also say that age is not the key factor in tire safety, and that consumers should pay attention to other maintenance issues. According to Goodyear spokesman Jim Davis, "We don't support age-based limits on tires because there's no scientific data to support that." Wal-Mart spokesperson Linda Blakley said, "Should the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration) create a ruling related to age of tires and its effect on the safety of our customers, we would of course comply."
Some of the biggest tire manufacturers, including Bridgestone/Firestone and Michelin, however, have issued bulletins to retailers calling for tires to be removed from service 10 years after the date of manufacture. The bulletins note that consumers should follow the tire replacement recommendations in their vehicle owner's manual if they offer different advice on a tire's shelf life. Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Audi and Toyota all recommend that tires be replaced six years after they were made.
Because of those bulletins, tire retailers should not be selling tires close to or older than 10 years of age, according to Sean Kane, who heads a private auto safety firm. "It's shocking to hear that particularly now because companies, like Sears, these large tire retailers have had this information in their hands for some time," said Kane.