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Beware of Aging Tires

Tires older than 6 years are at risk of de-tread.

Eight years ago the Explorer/ Firestone rollovers resulted in the largest recall in automotive history and resulted in hundreds of deaths and countless serious injuries. The recall highlighted the problems of tire aging. Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") has issued its first consumer advisory addressing the dangers of aged tires.

On June 2, NHTSA released an advisory warning to motorists to check their tires - including the spare - for signs of wear, under-inflation and age. This is a significant public acknowledgement of a safety hazard the agency has long promoted. While NHTSA's Consumer Advisory did not define any tire age limit, it did refer to vehicle and tire makers' recommendations. Most tire makers suggest that 6 years is the recommended age before the tire begins to degrade. NHTSA stated, "Some tire and vehicle manufacturers have issued recommendations for replacing tires that range from six to ten years of age. Consumers are advised to check with their tire or vehicle manufacturer for specific guidance."

The advisory also indicated that summer heat, especially in hotter climates, can take its toll on worn, old or improperly inflated tires leading to tread separations, crashes and rollovers.

NHTSA has been studying the effect of tire aging for at least seven years. NHTSA's own investigation into Firestone ATX/Wilderness tire defects found that tires were failing predominantly after several years of service and that age was a factor particularly in the high temperature environments because the rubber becomes less resistant to fatigue crack growth with aging, which increases the risk of failure. In a 2003 paper, NHTSA noted there was general agreement within the industry that older tires are more likely to fail than newer tires - and simply that "tire age matters." Recently, NHTSA's report titled, "Research Report to Congress on Tire Aging" cited its analysis of insurance company tire claims reported from 2002 through 2006. The analysis found 77 % of the tire claims came from hot climate states and 84 % of these clams were for tires more than six years old.

NHTSA was under increased pressure to address consumers following the recent high-profile stories on tire aging on NBC's Today Show and an investigative report on ABC's 20/20. In addition, a June 4 Congressional hearing on rollover safety gave Congress a forum to ask NHTSA what it planned to do on tire aging. The Consumer Advisory was sent out the day before the hearing.

The Firestone-Ford catastrophe and the Tire Recall Enforcement, Accountability and Documentation, (TREAD) Act forced NHTSA to examine tire aging issues. In 2005, a provision in the Safe Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act required the agency to report to Congress by August 2007 on tire aging, including potential regulatory testing to evaluate the risk of failure after a tire has been aged.

Tire manufacturers in the U.S. reluctantly joined the chorus in October 2005, when Bridgestone-Firestone specified that all tires should be removed after 10 years regardless of the remaining tread depth or that motorists follow the vehicle maker's recommendations (i.e., six years). Continental, Michelin, and Cooper followed suit and issued Technical Bulletins on tire aging early in 2006.

The bottom line for consumers is simply to replace tires (including spares) after 6 years, regardless of the mileage or condition of the tires.

George Bellas was a recipient of the prestigious Steven Sharp Award in 2001 by the Association of Trial Lawyer of America for educating attorneys and consumers about the problems with the Explorer/Firestone tires.