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Ford Warns Customers to Replace Tires After Six Years

LCT Staff
Posted on June 15, 2005

DETROIT, MICH. — The Ford Motor Co., in a move stirring the tire industry, has started urging consumers to replace tires after six years. The car maker said its research shows that tires "degrade over time, even when they are not being used." That means even pristine-looking spares that have never left the trunk should be discarded after a half- dozen years.

That's a radical concept in the staid U.S. tire business, which insists there's no scientific evidence to support a "use by" date for tires. It would also surprise most motorists, who are taught that a tire's life span is measured mainly by tread depth. The tire industry said that tires are safe as long as the tread depth is a minimum of 1/16th of an inch, no matter what the age, and there are no visible cuts, signs of uneven wear, bulges or excessive cracking. Other trouble signs are if tires create vibration or excessive noise. "Tires are not milk," said Daniel Zielinski, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the tire industry's main trade group.

For many consumers, the issue never comes up, since passenger-car tires last an average of 44,000 miles, meaning they are usually replaced before hitting the six- year mark. But many people simply assume that unused spare tires, even those that are a decade old, are as durable as brand-new tires, and sometimes use those spares as full- time replacements for the regular tires. Classic-car buffs and others who drive only infrequently could also be affected by the latest research.

In its new stance on tire safety, Ford is getting some support from other researchers. Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., an auto-safety research firm working with lawyers who are preparing lawsuits arising from accidents thought to be linked to aging tires, said older tires are a road hazard. Kane's group has collected a list of 70 accidents involving older tires, which resulted in 52 deaths and 50 serious injuries. In a sense, the U.S. car industry is just catching up to global standards. Many European automakers as well as Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. have long warned drivers, including those who buy their cars in the U.S., that tires are perishable. Many of them also use a six-year threshold for the age of a tire. DaimlerChrysler AG has already adopted a position parallel to Ford. The automaker's Mercedes division had been telling drivers that tires last only six years. But starting last fall, the Chrysler group began including such a warning in 2005 owner's manuals. "We did do some research and we found that's just a pretty safe and steady guideline," said Curtrise Garner, a Chrysler spokeswoman, adding that "it's a recommendation, not a must-do."

Ford's new stance on tire aging is a direct outgrowth of the Firestone tire recall that began in August 2000. That episode involved Firestone tires failing suddenly, mostly on Ford Explorers, leading to a wave of deadly crashes. The crashes sparked a series of lawsuits, including monetary and personal-injury claims, some of which are pending.

Ford's new position won't affect those lawsuits. But it could play a role in future legal action. Some attorneys who have sued over the Firestone case are now mounting cases that focus on tire age.

John Baldwin, a Ford materials scientist who studied the root cause of the Firestone problems and has spearheaded the automaker's continuing research on tire aging, said Ford's intention is to develop a test to help prevent another Firestone-type debacle. He said Ford's research into the Firestone problem showed that as tires age, the chemistry of the rubber changes as oxygen migrates through the carcass of the tire. This leads to a weakening of the internal structure that can result in tire failures. Driving in hot climates or frequent heavy loading of vehicles speeds this aging process, he said.

Firestone spokeswoman Christine Karbowiak said the company can't comment on Ford's new recommendation because it hasn't seen Ford's research.

Tire makers certainly don't want to see the six-year rule become any more deeply ingrained. While it might seem that putting a limit on the life span of tires would be a boon to tire makers, who would presumably sell more tires, the costs and complications it could create are considerable. Among other things, the industry is worried about the logistical problems that would arise if customers suddenly started demanding only the "freshest" tires. In some cases, tires take months to move through distribution channels from factories, through wholesalers, and then on to retail outlets.

HOW TO FIND A TIRE'S AGE:

* Look for the letters DOT on the sidewall (indicating compliance with applicable safety standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation).

* Next to these letters is the tire's serial number, which is a combination of up to 12 numbers and letters.

* The last characters are numbers that identify the week and year of manufacture. For example, 1504 means the fifteenth week of the year 2004.

* The numbers are printed on only one side of the tire, which sometimes is the side facing inward.

LCT Staff LCT Staff
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