With most of the roughly 20 regulations mandated by the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act in place, a federal safety official said the focus now will turn to tire aging.
"As tires last longer, long-term durability becomes more of a concern, especially in warmer states," said Robert Medford, senior associate administrator for vehicle safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Medford made the comments during his keynote address at the ACS Rubber Division spring meeting, held May 16-18 in San Antonio.
One NHTSA official said last year the agency hoped to propose a new federal tire-aging test by this June. Medford, however, indicated the work was in an earlier stage, with NHTSA in the process of doing research. It is retrieving used tires for testing from Southern states—at this point mainly from the Phoenix area.
The agency is looking for tires from three age groups: those made in 1997-98, those produced in 1999-2000 and those from 2001-03. "We´re trying to identify tests that will simulate the aging of tires," Medford said.
Four aging test methods are being evaluated, one each from Continental Tire North America Inc. and Michelin North America Inc., a hybrid oven test and a mechanical aging test, according to the NHTSA official. Medford hopes testing will be completed by year-end.
Just days after Medford´s speech, in fact, both Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler A.G. put out word that they would begin advising car owners to replace tires after six years, regardless of mileage, a stance with which the Rubber Manufacturers Association disagrees.
NHTSA still is dealing with the rule mandating tire pressuring monitoring systems, as it issued in early April the reworked final rule after the original regulation was vacated by the courts. A number of industry-related companies and associations, however, still are unhappy with the TPMS standard and have issued petitions for reconsideration.
Other safety matters
Regarding issues of general vehicle safety, Medford noted that fatalities have dropped since the 1970s, though the current rate of 1.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles still adds up to 43,000 lives a year.
Deaths from motorcycle accidents have been on the increase since 1998, accounting for about 3,700 fatalities in 2003, he said. The age group responsible for the spike in fatalities is the over-40 population, as baby boomers are driving motorcycles for the first time, and they´re driving big bikes "and it´s a big problem," Medford said.
NHTSA has five main priorities in improving safety, he said: increasing seatbelt usage even more; lowering the number of impaired drivers on the road; getting data sooner; cutting back on rollover accidents; and dealing with compatibility issues caused by such crashes as a large sport-utility vehicle hitting a compact car.
NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge has made a concerted effort since taking office in 2001 to get more people to use seatbelts, and usage has grown to 80 percent from 73 percent, Medford said. He noted that in 1983, only 14 percent of people used seatbelts, and half the lives saved in crashes can be attributed to the safety device.
"Every 1 percent increase in usage saves 270 lives a year," Medford said. "If you are ejected from the vehicle, you are eight times more likely to die."
About 40 percent of vehicle fatalities are alcohol-related, but thus far NHTSA has made little progress in this area, he said.
The agency has started a test program to get data reported earlier. It takes 1 1/2 years to get safety data published, he said, so reports over busy traveling holidays wouldn´t be available in a timely fashion. NHTSA is testing a program where it will get more immediate data from certain key states as a way to try to judge safety numbers more quickly.
Rollovers are another area of grave concern. While those types of wrecks account for just 3 percent of overall accidents, they accounted for more than 10,300—or nearly 25 percent—of vehicle fatalities in 2003, he said.
One area of possible help here may be the development of warning systems that will notify drivers of impending lane or road departure, as well as a drowsy driver monitor system.