Sept. 24, 2003 -- Bill Cartus received a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger sports car as a high school graduation gift more than 30 years ago. The Birmingham, Ala., resident says he kept the car in tip-top shape.
Four years ago, Cartus and his friend and fellow car enthusiast, Ginger Townsend, were returning home from a car convention in Montana. While driving at highway speeds the Sunbeam's left rear tire separated. Cartus says the car rolled. Townsend suffered permanent brain damage.
What Cartus didn't realize is the age of his tires made them dangerous. He said the tires had good tread, and he had checked them throughout the trip.They had only 4,000 miles on them, but they were 10 years old.
Cartus, 54, says no one told him about the hazard old tires could pose to motorists. "I now know that they deteriorate with age. That information was not given to me. It was not made available," he said.
Townsend's daughter is now suing the company that made the tire.
Cartus's case is just one of many in a series of accidents blamed on old tires.
Industry watcher Sean Kane, who investigates auto safety issues for attorneys, uncovered at least 20 cases in which old tires, some barely used, have disintegrated causing accidents. The cases led to 10 deaths.
"We suspected for some time that the industry has been unwilling to tell the public how serious a problem it is," said Kane, a partner with Arlington, Va.-based Strategic Safety. "Tires as a commodity should have a shelf life or expiration date on them."
Kane isn't the only one concerned about this issue. Last week a British trade association, the Tyre Industry Council, issued the tire industry's first ever warning on the subject, imploring people to refrain from selling tires six years old or older and to not use any tires 10 years old or older.
In addition three major German auto manufacturers, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen, include warnings about using older tires in their owner's manuals. There is also a concern about spare tires, because they sit so long until needed.
Tires Degrade Over Time
Tire experts say tires degrade over time. The oils, chemicals, rubber and bonding all start to come apart as time wears on. If a tire is not used, it only speeds up the process, because there are certain chemicals used to protect the tire that are only activated if the tire is in normal use.
"Gradually it's been apparent there was this problem, but the industry nervously looked the other way, because the tire industry is very, very sensitive to anything that involves danger and their products," said Rex Grogan, a tire consultant who formerly worked for British tire maker Dunlop for 33 years.
Grogan supports the time limits set by the British Tyre Industry Council.
Warning Signs Are Not Always Visible
Often, there is no way to determine if there is anything wrong with a tire by simply looking at it. And tires may spend a substantial amount of time in warehouses and distributors before they even reach stores where they are available to consumers.
It's not easy for consumers to determine the age of a tire. It requires the ability to decipher the last three digits of the Department of Transportation number molded into the tire.
The first two digits correspond to the week of the year the tire was made and the third digit corresponds to the last digit in the year it was made. For example, a DOT number ending in 238 would have been produced in the 23rd week of 1998.
Michael Rotondo from Massachusetts just bought a 1993 Isuzu and was shocked to discover that his spare tire was 11 years old. "I think after work today I'm going to stop by the place I bought it and ask them for a new tire," Rotondo told ABCNEWS.
U.S. Manufacturers' Group
The Rubber Manufacturer's Association, which represents U.S. tire makers, is not ready to take the same steps as their counterpart in England. Spokesman Dan Zielinski said: "Tires do vary from company to company and from tires within a company themselves, so it's hard just to pinpoint one particular tire age limit for every tire." He also expressed concern about the idea of expiration dates, stating that an expiration date could give consumers the belief that they could treat a tire in any manner they chose without regard to proper tire safety until the expiration date hit.
As of now the government is looking at the issue of aging tires, but there are no plans to move forward with the idea of expiration dates or warnings.