Buyer Beware: Tire's age could make it unsafe

(National) Nov. 9, 2004 - Bobby Crane was 17-years-old and hoped to go into business with his brother, Joey. Their mother, Susan Crane, says, "Not only did they want to be in business together, but they really wanted to raise their families next door to each other, too."

But, it wasn't to be. One day before Bobby's 18th birthday, the SUV in which he was riding with his brother rolled over. Jack Crane, the boys' father, says, "Joey was at the wheel. He heard a loud bang, and the car began to swerve, and he struggled to gain control of it."

Bobby didn't survive. According to the police report, the cause of the crash was tread separation on one of the tires, a full-sized spare Bobby's father say was put on not long before the crash, "It had good tread. It looked fine."

The Cranes have filed a lawsuit. A tire expert hired by the family determined the tire failed because it was 14 years old. Expert Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies says old tires are surprisingly common, "This is clearly the industry's dirty little secret. Our research has only scratched the surface."

So far, Kane says he's uncovered nearly 50 accident cases involving tread separation, most ending in death or serious injury. He claims none of the tires failed because of improper care, wear, or defect, but solely because the rubber was old, "As tires age the rubber material that holds the belts together, the adhesion level starts to degrade and reduce."

Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the fact that rubber breaks down is undeniable. Joseph Kanianthra of the NHTSA says, "We know tires age, both in use as well as sitting on the shelf. We are concerned about it."

He say the government is performing rigorous tests right now to find out how tire aging deteriorates the performance of tires, "We should have the results within a year."

Kane says he hopes that data will lead to expiration dates on tires. He'd like the cutoff to be six years from the date of manufacture.

Joan Claybrook, the President of Public Citizen and former NHTSA head, agrees, "I think an expiration date that's clearly labeled on the tire will then prevent the sale to the consumer."

The Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents US tire makers admits that tires age, but it says how fast they age depends on factors such as climate and storage conditions.

The RMA's Dan Zielinski says setting a blanket expiration date would be too arbitrary, "If you say stop using your tires after 'x' amount of years, well that tire may have good life to it."

The RMA proposal was entered as part of a deposition in the Crane's court case, among others. Yet, despite the industry's public opposition, an internal RMA document recommends, "Any tires in service older than ten years from the date of manufacture be replaced with new tires, as a simple precaution."

The proposal goes on to say, "Tires older than five years from manufacturing date must be inspected by a professional at least annually."

When asked why the RMA would draft recommendations if dates aren't necessary, Zielinski says, "There certainly was a discussion, but barring any scientific data that says something to the contrary, it would be irresponsible to set that date."

The American Automobile Association agrees. The AAA believes tire pressure and tread are more important safety issues. Mantill Williams of the AAA says, "When you look at expiration dates, I think that, right now, the jury is still out."

But, the jury's not out for Rhonda Zarzaur and her husband. They bought four tires they thought were new. Mark Zarzaur says the couple "saw them get them off the store shelves."

Within months, one-by-one, the treads separated on three of the tires while the family was on the road. At least one of the tires was manufactured more than a decade before they bought it. The tire maker told her, "We did observe that this tire is over 14-years-old ... and is well beyond its normal service life."

The tire maker wouldn't compensate the Zarzaurs for the tires, saying they were too old. The family hired an attorney and settled. Rhonda says, "The shelf life is important. How our tire has been stored is important. So, that's the stuff we check now."

As for the Crane family, Jack says they hope telling Bobby's story will prevent other families from suffering like they have, "If I knew that a tire could age to the point it was unsafe, I would never have allowed my sons to take that trip with that tire on their car, there's no way."

While there are no expiration dates on tires now, there is a way to tell when your tires were manufactured using a long string of numbers on each tire.

posted 6:00pm by Chris Rees