WASHINGTON-The Rubber Manufacturers Association, smarting over the unilateral actions of Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler L.L.C. to advise consumers to replace their tires after six years of service, wants a federal agency to do something about it.
The RMA wrote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration June 10, asking it to issue a consumer advisory outlining the factors that affect a tire´s service life and the benefits of proper tire maintenance. In essence, it asked the agency not to issue any immediate directives on tire aging-probably in view of the petition from a safety watchdog group, Safety Research & Strategies Inc., for the agency to issue a general warning about tire aging.
"We emphasize the need to answer the fundamental question-whether tire service life alone has an effect on real-world tire safety performance-before the agency settles on the appropriate course of action," the association said. "Only by answering this question can NHTSA, the tire industry, the auto industry, and others concerned with highway safety be assured that consumers are given the right advice."
To speak of "tire age" is inappropriate on its face, the RMA argued, because the issue really involves a tire´s length of time in use, not its date of manufacture. Service conditions vary widely, it said, as do storage conditions for unsold tires and the tire maintenance practices of individual motorists.
"Since service conditions vary widely, accurately predicting the serviceable life of any specific tire in chronological time is not possible with the data currently available to the RMA," the association said. "Vehicle manufacturers may also recommend, but cannot determine, when a tire should be replaced based on their understanding of the vehicle application."
The RMA has not yet had a response to its letter, and does not expect one quickly, according to an association spokesman.
A DaimlerChrysler spokesman declined comment on the RMA letter, but defended the car maker´s action.
"We believe that inserting the language into our owner´s manuals will encourage our customers to pay closer attention to the often-overlooked issue of proper tire maintenance," he said. "There are ongoing studies of tire life, but in the meantime we feel it is important to alert our customers to the importance of tire safety."
A Ford spokesman said his company never meant to suggest that tires have a hard-and-fast expiration date, or age the same in all conditions, but the six-year advisory was a conservative recommendation based on the results of Ford´s own research.
Sean Kane, president of Rehoboth, Mass.-based Safety Research & Strategies, was skeptical about the RMA petition.
"When I look at this, I see it as a bit of damage control," he said. "The RMA always shifts it all onto the consumer."
Since November 2003 Kane has lobbied NHTSA for a consumer advisory on tire aging. He has presented the agency with a list of 70 cases, all gleaned from court documents in product liability litigation, in which tires older than six years allegedly failed and caused accidents. These accidents have resulted in 52 deaths and 51 injuries, Kane claims.
The Tire Industry Association said that it supports the RMA letter and doesn´t plan to write its own.
Whereas Ford and DaimlerChrysler are advising consumers to replace their tires after six years, GM said it stands by its earlier statement that it has no intention of doing the same. "The fact is that most tires wear out before they age out," said James Gutting, director of GM´s Tire and Wheel Laboratory in Milford, Mich.
NHTSA, meanwhile, is working on a tire-aging performance test to add to federal tire safety standards. It could release a proposed version of the test as early as this summer.