Tire aging is a safety issue that many consumers are unaware of. However, tire manufacturers and automobile manufacturers have become more aware of the issue since the Explorer/Firestone Wilderness ATX tire catastrophe that led to Congressional hearings in the late 1990s. As our lawyers have learned during litigation, a tire that is too old for safe use can fail with catastrophic results.
Most consumers are unaware that a tire’s DOT number provides users with the date of manufacture for the tire. A tire’s DOT number provides information about the manufacturer of the tire and the week and year of the tire’s manufacture. For example, if the last four digits of the DOT number were “4809” – this would mean that the tire was manufactured in the 48th week of 2009. Unfortunately, most people believe the safety of their tires relates solely to the amount of tread depth. But tires can sit on the shelf for years or be stored as a spare tire for years, without ever being used. The tread on those tires will look safe. Tread depth, however, is not the only factor to consider in terms of tire safety.
As tires age, the rubber components of the tire are susceptible to degradation or thermo-oxidative aging that has been documented for years. This oxidative aging has an impact on the natural life of rubber products. Sean Cain, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., compares an aging tire to an old rubber band. He says:
If you take a rubber band that’s been sitting around a long time and stretch it, you will start to see cracks in the rubber.
The same thing can happen to a tire that has aged past its useful life. Cracks in the rubber can begin to develop and be visible along the surfaces of the tire. This cracking can also lead to a separation of the steel belts from the carcass of the tire even though the tread depth appears to be safe. Our lawyers know from experience in litigation that thread separations can lead to vehicle loss of control at highway speeds. The results are quite often death or serious injury.
Automakers and tire manufacturers have not reached consensus on when tires should be replaced based on age. While some tire manufacturers have said that a tire should be replaced once it reaches 10 years of age, other tire manufacturers have recommended that tires older than six years should be replaced. Additionally, automakers have started putting recommendations in the owner’s manuals of their vehicles. In most instances, automakers have recommended that tires older than six years should be replaced.
Additionally, many folks purchase “used” tires that appear to have safe tread depth. Again, these consumers are unaware of the age of “used” tires and can be purchasing unsafe tires. Most manufacturers discourage the sale and purchase of used tires due to aging issues and other reasons. Unfortunately, the “used” tire market is not regulated. Therefore, consumers can be purchasing tires that are unsafe, but have been made to appear safe for use. For this reason, it’s very important that tire manufacturers make a better effort to educate the public regarding the aging issue, including warnings and perhaps expiration dates stamped on their tires.
However, with little consensus in the industry and no government oversight on this issue, it does not appear that consumers will be provided with the necessary information they need to make intelligent choices about tire selection in the near future. If you need more information on this subject, contact Ben Baker or Rick Morrison, lawyers in our firm’s Personal Injury/Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Ben.Baker@beasleyallen.com or Rick.Morrison@beasleyallen.com.
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