WASHINGTON — Used tires are accidents waiting to happen, and the tire industry should have stricter standards in inspecting them before sale, according to a safety research group with close ties to plaintiffs´ attorneys.
Representatives of the tire industry, however, insist that stricter standards are unnecessary and that restricting the use of used tires could have dire safety consequences of its own.
Some 30 million used tires are sold in the U.S. every year, according to Rehoboth, Mass.-based Safety Research & Strategies Inc., quoting figures from the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
"While many used tires are purchased because of tight budgets, consumers across socio-economic strata are lured by one thing-the appearance of a bargain," said a position paper on the SRS Web site. "What they don´t bargain for is the lack of safeguards that allows potentially unsafe used tires to make their way back into the market."
For one thing, SRS said, used tires often are stored under conditions that contribute to deterioration. The inspection and certification of used tires also leave much to be desired, according to SRS.
"More often than not, the provenance of a used tire is unknown," the group said. "However, the bulk of the used tire market is supported by large multi-state recyclers who do little more than give each tire a visual inspection to determine that tread depth is adequate."
Such companies, SRS added, even paint used tires black to make them appear new.
"So many of the accidents we´ve seen involved used tires," said SRS President Sean Kane, who submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration a list of 108 accidents involving 85 fatalities that, SRS claimed, were caused by the failure of tires more than six years old.
"We´re at the beginning of this," Kane said regarding his group´s actions on used tires. "We´re not really sure this is an NHTSA matter, because the agency regulates new tires. But this may be under the purview of the states, or perhaps an issue of self-policing by the tire industry."
SRS has made a crusade against aged tires on the road. In November 2003, it petitioned NHTSA to require the removal of tires from the highway or from sale that are more than six years past their manufacture date. Since that time, major auto companies such as Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler A.G. also have endorsed the six-year limit.
However, tire industry representatives said the vast majority of used tire sellers are reputable businesses that take far greater care than SRS assumes to ensure the quality of their products.
"We are very confident they are acting in a professional manner in the sale of used tires," said Paul Fiore, director of government and business affairs for the Tire Industry Association.
"This issue seems to revolve around the question of when a tire becomes a used tire," added Dick Gust, president of Chicago-based Lakin Environmental Industries L.L.C. and a former TIA president. Lakin Environmental is the recycling arm of Lakin Tire, one of the largest used tire marketers in the U.S., with an estimated 6 million sold every year.
People in the used tire business, according to Gust, inspect their tires very carefully for leaks and anomalies, and remove all tires they suspect of having them. Used tires, he added, meet an important need in the tire marketplace, as well as an important safety need.
"If you restricted used tires in the marketplace, motorists at a certain economic level would put off the purchase of new tires until they could afford them," he said. "That in itself would create a major safety problem, as those motorists drove on worn tires."
Gust also took issue with the SRS paper´s recommendation of shearography, the laser examination of tires, as a solution to the question of used tire quality.
"(Shearography) can non-destructively examine the inside of a tire, similar to the way an MRI is used in medicine," the SRS said. Large used tire wholesalers could afford shearographic machines that cost $150,000 to $250,000 each, it said, and at least one shearographic machine maker said his product could examine a tire in 25 seconds at a cost of 25 cents.
"Not even every new tire is subject to shearography," Gust said. "Shearography is used quite extensively in aircraft tires, less so in truck tires, and not at all in passenger tires. That´s because shearography is too cumbersome, too impractical, and it wouldn´t do the job anyway."