Danger on Wheels? Feds Say Tire Recall System 'Completely Broken'

ABC News previously investigated potentially dangerous tires.

ByABC News
October 27, 2015, 7:21 AM

— -- After a year-long investigation, federal officials announced today that the nationwide system to recall defective and potentially dangerous automobile tires is “broken,” leaving American motorists at risk.

“Today’s report is the outcome of these investigations that uncovered several issues, some of which are systemic, that consumers cannot address on their own,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said. “The current system for tire registration and recalls has proven ineffective.”

NTSB senior staff officer Robert Molloy was more blunt: “Based on the work we did, that system’s not working. It’s completely broken.”

The investigation was launched by the National Transportation Safety Board last May in the wake of a deadly traffic accident involving a tire that had been recalled.

An ABC News investigation at the time found the government's recall system woefully inadequate, leaving millions of tires in use, on store shelves or simply unaccounted for.

Undercover reporters from ABC stations in Atlanta and San Francisco found recalled tires still for sale at some retail outlets.

Last year the NTSB estimated there are “400 to 500 deaths a year, at least, from crashes involving tire-initiated events," including tires that could have been underinflated, punctured or suffered from other pre-existing problems. The Rubber Manufacturers Association disputed that number, putting the estimate at approximately 200 fatalities per year, citing other NTSB figures.

The year-long NTSB investigation was triggered, in part, by a fatal accident in Florida involving a church van with a defective tire that apparently neither mechanics nor church officials were aware had been recalled a year earlier.

Two adult church leaders were killed and eight others were injured, most of them teenagers.

"When you see 33,000 accidents a year, in relation to defect tires, we know we have a serious tire problem and a good piece of that relates to recalls," NTSB Chairman Chris Hart told ABC News.

NTSB officials said today that a big part of the problem is consumer awareness.

“Here I am, reading this report, appearing for [the] board meeting, and I cannot tell you if my tires are registered or not and there is something wrong with that,” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.

Most drivers don’t know they need to register their tires with the manufacturer in order to receive recall notices, Hart said.

But NTSB officials also said their department and manufacturers can do better to make it easier for consumers to tell if they tires are under recall. One way, an official said, was to recommend that manufacturers to adopt a Tire Identification Number (TIN) lookup system on their websites. Each tire already has its own TIN imprinted on the side of the tire.

Manufacturers could also employ newer technology on the tires themselves in form of embedded chips or scan-able codes to help auto shops quickly identify tires, the NTSB said, and update customer contact forms to ensure consumers get recall notices when they go out.

In addition to recalls, safety advocates told ABC News last year that there is also a danger when it comes to tires that are simply old.

Safety engineers say that depending on how they’re maintained and used, they can begin to lose their the tread and separate after as little as six years. But no current law, or industry standard, prevents the sale of aged tires and customers will only k now the age of their tires if they know how to read a small code imprinted on the tire itself.

Ford, GM and Chrysler all recommend that tires more than six years old be replaced, regardless of how much they have been used.

But the tire industry says there’s no evidence to support a strict tire age standard of any kind.