Recall Roulette: Are You Driving on a Defective Tire?

Because of a badly flawed and archaic government recall system, millions of potentially dangerous recalled tires remain on the roads, on store shelves for sale, or simply unaccounted for, an ABC News investigation has found.

So how do you know if yours is one of them? Finding the answer is not easy, according to some tire safety advocates.

"When you go to a tire shop today and you have your tires inspected there is no way that shop can examine the tire at a glance and determine whether it's part of a recall," said Sean Kane, a safety consultant for several state governments and lawyers who sue tire companies.

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The answer can possibly be found in the tire's Department of Transportation (DOT) Tire Identification Number, or TIN, a cryptic 11 or 12-digit code imprinted on its sidewall.

Within that string of letters and numbers, the first 7 or 8 digits contain information about the tire, including its size and the factory where it was made. The last four digits are a "date code," revealing the week and year the tire was manufactured. The first two numbers denote the week the tire was made, and the last two mean the year.

Click here to learn how to tell your tire's age by reading its cryptic code

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency responsible for overseeing motor vehicle recall campaigns, does not offer any database searchable by a tire's DOT TIN number to see if it has been recalled.

"In 2014 there is no excuse," Kane said. "Given the capabilities we have for automation in today's world, it is absolutely stunning."

What the agency does offer on its website is a way to search for tire recalls by entering the tire's brand and model.

If that model of tire has ever been recalled, that search will turn up a recall notice, often a list of DOT TIN numbers and date ranges that have been recalled. It's then up to the tire owner to figure out if their tire is a match.

That, Sean Kane says, is a struggle for consumers trying to figure out if they could be driving on a defective tire.

"When I go through it I find that I'm frustrated," Kane said. "I have to actually pull down the documents, which often times … there's as many as 15, 13 documents that are associated with the recall, read through all of these documents to try and figure it out."

In a statement to ABC News, NHTSA pointed to its current recall search site as one of the "multiple ways for consumers to learn of recalls affecting tires."

NHTSA also noted that consumers can sign up to get notified when tires are recalled by signing up on their website, or by following the agency on Twitter or Facebook. The government agency added that it plans to expand notification services to a mobile app that will "allow Apple and Droid users to sign up for tire recall alerts for their specific tires, as well as submit tire complaints from their mobile devices."

In an interview with ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross, tire industry spokesman Dan Zielinski, of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, said that the absence of a tire recall database searchable by DOT TIN number is "something worthy of discussion."

"We'd be happy to be part of that discussion," Zielinski said. "It might be a very effective way to track a large database of recalls that span all manufacturers by potentially a government website."

Zielinski also pointed to the tire recall notification system as something that is "certainly imperfect and needs improvement."

"Our members are motivated to get every recall tire they can off the road, because it potentially poses a safety issue."

For now, Kane says there might be a better way to be sure if a tire has been recalled - but it's not on the government website.

"At the end of the day you're better off just calling the manufacturer and trying to get someone on the line and walk through that," he said.