Tire Aging: Recent Focus on an Old Problem

Healy Scanlon

This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.

Healy Scanlon Law Firm is comprised of eight trial attorneys, two of whom are from Ireland. We are located downtown at 111 West Washington Street, Suite 1425, Chicago, Illinois 60602 (800-787-5431 or 312-324-0409). www.HealyLawFirm.com . The firm concentrates in the representation of injured victims of all types of accidents.

Tire Aging: Recent Focus on an Old Problem

As we begin to think about warmer weather, some begin to plan our spring or summer trips in our cars, vans, trucks and motor homes. With some, these vehicles for many reasons, including difficult economic times, tend to be a bit older. Whether in the context of older vehicles or those not used on a regular basis, there has been a recent increased focus on a problem relating to vehicle tires: their age.

Past Tire Problems: Firestone and Ford

There was considerable national attention given to tire problems, including premature aging, a little over ten years ago, when the Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and similar sports utility vehicles were front and center in the news media. Evidence showed that those tires prematurely wore out, causing tread separation and resulting, in some cases, in a rollover of the vehicle. Concerned about accidents from heat exposed, overinflated, prematurely aged tires, Ford, as a short term solution, recommended in its owner's manual that the tires be inflated to only 26 pounds per square inch (psi), despite the fact that the stamping on the tire wall indicated a maximum inflation of 35 psi. While most of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tragedy is behind us, the tire aging problem is still with us.

What is tire aging?

The aging occurs when certain aspects of the rubber compound in the tire decompose. Safety experts have compared old tires to an old rubber band - if you stretch an old rubber band out you will see cracks. Like a rubber band, over time, cracks in the tire rubber develop, either on the surface of the tire or inside the tire. The cracking eventually causes the steel belts in the tread to separate from the rest of the tire. Warmer climates, exposure to the elements, and improper maintenance all compound the problem. As an additional concern, a tire damaged by aging may look visually fine, despite its dangerous propensities.

When do problems occur?

In July, 2012, a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) report indicated that during the 2005-07 period, tire aging caused, or played a significant role annually in 90 deaths and 3,200 injuries on our roadways.

For many drivers, tire aging will not be a significant issue. A typical driver drives 12,000 to 15,000 a year. At this rate, the tire treads will generally wear down before tire aging will take its toll. However, certain situations more readily lend themselves to tire aging problems: infrequently used tires, spare tires, used tires, and, abused tires.

While the last two categories may be obvious, the first two certainly are not. Infrequently used tires, such as tires on motor homes, vans or seasonal cars can be damaged not from "wear and tear," but simply the effect of time on the rubber components of the tire. Spare tires are susceptible to problems for this same reason, but more so because of how they are stored. Most spares are stored in the trunk, where, according to an industry analyst, they may as well be "baking in a miniature oven."

This is certainly not to suggest that heavily used tires are not prone to problems with tire aging. While usually these tires will first show tread depth reduction, attention must be paid to aging even before the tread wears out.

How long is too long?

According to Sean Kane, an automobile safety consultant with Safety Research & Strategies (SRS), the tire industry has been studying oxidation and heat problems with tires since the 1930s.

Multiple studies and industry recommendations have pointed to six years as being the safe, useful life of a tire. Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Chrysler and Nissan all suggest, but do not require, that tires be replaced after 6 years. Bridgestone/Firestone, however, mandates that tires be checked after 5 years and replaced after 10.

Another tire aging problem exists because some service technicians are not trained to identify tires which are potentially defective. In one recent report, an investigative journalist brought an 11 year old tire to many large tire retailers complaining that the tire was "under-inflated." Only 1 retailer questioned the tires age, or was even able to read the Tire Identification Number on the sidewall.

Used tires

A large area of concern for tire aging comes with used tires. The tight economy has created a large market for cheaper, used tires. Because the owner has no knowledge of the history of the tire, many experts recommend that purchasing of used tires should be approached with extreme caution, or simply be avoided if possible. Equally important is to remember that simply because a tire is not worn does not mean that it is relatively new.

Possible solutions

Since vehicle manufacturers recommend that tires be replaced every six-years, use that timeframe as the outer limit. As discussed above, potentially dangerous tires often appear fine to the human eye. However, one safety organization is encouraging large tire retailers to use machines that examine the inside of a tire much like an MRI examines the human body. According to the manufacturer, a tire problem can be discovered at a very low cost.

Be cautious in purchasing used tires without knowledge of the use history of tires. There are many things that can go wrong with vehicles, but from a safety prospective, steering, braking and tires are among the most important, and should be dealt with very carefully.

By: Martin Healy, Jr.

Dennis M. Lynch