This morning NHTSA announced a recall of certain Yokohama tires. According to the e-mail I received from them this morning, the recall was announced because the tires failed to conform “to the tire identification requirement of federal motor vehicle safety standard number 139.” Seems like this recall happened because some of Yokohama’s tires weren’t stamped with proper identification numbers on their sidewalls. NHTSA seemed to think that this was a safety issue because if, theoretically, there was ever a problem with those tires they couldn’t be recalled and removed from service.
Here’s what’s crazy though… for years, consumer advocates like Sean Kane with Safety Research and Strategy, has been arguing that tires need to have proper warnings on their sidewalls to warn consumers about one of the biggest problems with tires today: tire aging. Tire aging is not a theoretical problem; it’s very real and causes hundreds of accidents every year.
A few years ago I represented a family who had lost a loved one as the result of a tread separation. We brought a lawsuit against the tire manufacturer and claimed that the tire failed because of its age. That case was one of the earliest tire aging cases, and at the time the manufacturer thought I was crazy for bringing the case. Nevertheless, we moved forward and began taking discovery and depositions.
I remember when I finally had the chance to take the corporate representative’s deposition who had been designated by the manufacturer to talk about why the tire failed. The guy was an engineer and had some background in polymer chemistry. Having been briefed by my expert, we started to talk about rubber, and how natural rubber consists of long molecules that make it springy. He admitted – surprisingly – that the problem with rubber molecules is that oxygen makes them break apart.
It’s sort of like when I was a kid, we used to play with wooden paddle toys that had a rubber band attached to a red ball. I remember leaving one of those out outside on our driveway in front of our house for a few days. The hot summer Florida sun baked the rubber band over the course of several days, and when I picked it up and tried to use the paddleball toy, the rubber band snapped. The reason the rubber band broke was because heat and oxygen had broken down the molecules in the rubber band making it brittle. This process is called oxidation, which rubber manufacturers have known about for almost as long as they have been making rubber. The problem is, the manufacturers never tell consumers that this same process brakes down the rubber in tires and leads to tread separations as tires get older, especially in hot parts of the country. That’s why every year here in Florida, when it starts to get hot in spring and summer, we have hundreds and hundreds of tread separations on our highways. Many of which cause major crashes.
Safety advocates have been arguing that NHTSA should force tire manufacturers to put warnings on the sidewalls of tires and to tell consumers that tires have expiration dates. Unfortunately NHTSA has failed to take any direct action on this issue. Their failure is especially frustrating because auto manufacturers and tire companies have both agreed — on the record under oath — that tires should not be used after a certain number of years because they become dangerous. I remember hearing this for the first time from a tire company in that corporate representative deposition I took years ago and wondering why in the world the tire companies don’t tell people.
The answer has to do with inventory. The tire industry would be hard-pressed to deal with the logistics of “expiration dates ” stamped on the sidewall of tires. Expiration dates would require companies to remove inventory from warehouses, better track inventory, and probably offer discounts to consumers as tires get older and have a shorter lifespan. Bottom line: it would cost big bucks.
Theoretically NHTSA, as the regulator, would have the stones to overcome industry opposition and make sure public safety takes priority over profit. Wishful thinking. Despite hundreds of deaths and injuries, and years of urging by safety advocates, NHTSA hasn’t done a thing other than recognize the potential problem exists and stand pat.
So, when I read NHTSA’s e-mail this morning announcing a “safety recall” because someone failed to stamp an ID on the side of their tire, and that the lack of an ID is a safety problem because theoretically if those same tires have a problem and might need to be recalled, I had to laugh. If NHTSA wants to address the real problem with safety warnings and potential hazards with respect to what is or is not stamped on the sidewall of the tire, they need to s put a clearly identified expiration date on all tires. Everyone in the industry knows this is a problem. But because the almighty buck, it ain’t likely to be fixed any time in the foreseeable future.