Buyer Beware: Checking for old, potentially dangerous tires

(National) Nov. 10, 2004 - Rhonda and Mark Zarzaur bought four tires for their car, but Rhonda says what seemed new to them wasn't new at all, "There was no indication that they were old in any way."

Until one by one, she says, the treads started separating. Rhonda did some digging and found, while she bought her tires unused and they looked brand new, at least one was manufactured more than a decade before she bought it, "It really could have been a terrible situation."

Joan Claybrook, the president of the group Public Citizen and the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says tire bought as new could have been sitting in a warehouse for a long time, "You can get a tire and buy a tire that's maybe six-, seven-, eight-years-old."

Safety officials say six years past the date of manufacture is too old and expiration dates should be used. But, tire makers argue a blanket expiration date would not be effective, since factors like storage, maintenance and weather affect the aging process.

The NHTSA is testing tires right now and should have results within a year. Until then, you can find out how old your tires are if you know where to look.

Sean Kane, an analyst with Safety Research and Strategies, says, "It tends to be on the side that's underneath your car, on the inside of your car. But, there's no simple way for consumers to see that information."

When you do find it, it can be hard to decipher. Here's how to unlock the code: if it has 11 numbers and letters, check the last four digits. If those four digits are, for example, 3503, the tire was made the 35th week of 2003.

If it has only ten numbers and letters, check the last three numbers. If it reads 414, it was made in the 41st week of either 1994 or 1984. If you're confused, ask for help.

And, Claybrook says, don't forget to check your spare, "Spare tires age, particularly, because they're in an enclosed environment in the trunk of the vehicle."

Until a decision is made about expiration dates, Kane says safety advocates want the government to force manufacturers to make the codes more visible and easier to understand, "Something needs to happen in the interim, because people are dying."

Rhonda and Mark say buying an old tire that they thought was new is a mistake they won't make again, "No tire gets put on a vehicle that we're going to be riding in that the DOT code hasn't been checked."

For years, many European carmakers have had tire aging advisories in their owners manuals. As for the big three in the US, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors currently do not have tire aging warnings in their manuals and do not plan to add them in the near future.

The tire industry says they're concerned that if expiration dates are placed on tires drivers will assume their tires are safe until that date arrives and will not check important things like tread and pressure.

Updated 5:22pm by Chris Rees