Once you’ve been a trial lawyer for long enough, there are some consumer products you just don’t look at the same anymore, because you’ve heard about them too many times from other trial lawyers or because you’ve sat across a conference table from someone telling you about the worst thing that ever happened to their family. ATVs cause a death or two every day. Gas cans without a flame arrestor or a spill-proof lid severely burn a child under six years old every day or two. Trampolines send 275 kids and teenagers to the emergency room with serious injuries every day.
So it goes with tire failures, which cause a death or two a day, and 15-passenger vans, which have a fatal crash or two every week. Tire blowouts and tread separation are so common, and passenger vans so prone to rollovers, that, when I saw the main characters in Inception get into a Ford E-Series, I instinctively thought, “they’re going to roll it.” (Sure enough, they did, though in fairness to the van, they were being rammed.)
Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent out a well-meaning press release warning “colleges, church groups, and other users of 15-passenger vans” to take additional precautions, because:
Recognizing that 15-passenger vans are particularly sensitive to loading, the agency warns users never to overload these vehicles under any circumstances. NHTSA research shows overloading 15-passenger vans both increases rollover risk and makes the vehicle more unstable in any handling maneuvers.
Tire pressure can vary on front and back tires that are used for 15-passenger vans. This is why the agency urges vehicle users to make certain the vans have appropriately-sized and load rated tires that are properly inflated before every trip. Taking into account the fact that tires degrade over time, NHTSA recommends that spare tires not be used as replacements for worn tires. In fact, many tire manufacturers recommend that tires older than 10 years not be used at all.
It’s those last two sentences that drive trial lawyers like me bonkers. The NHTSA knows that’s a grossly inadequate warning and knows most consumers have no idea about the real danger of tire failure or how to prevent it. Old tires and their propensity towards tread separation and blowout are a simple scientific fact, but the $30 billion tire industry, the NHTSA, and some courts have all resisted accepting it for years.
Nudged forward by the Bridgestone / Ford Explorer tragedies, the NHTSA in August 2007 finally published its report on tire aging and accidents, but frustratingly concluded only that “NHTSA’s research supports the conclusion that the age of a tire, along with factors such as average air temperature and inflation, plays some role in the likelihood of its failure,” without making any real conclusions. They’ve initiated a follow-up study.
The car manufacturers, though, have long since distanced themselves from the idea that tires can last forever, or that the only time that matters is “time in service.” The ten year expiration date referenced by the NHTSA is what the tire manufacturers begrudgingly admit to, but the real figure from the car manufacturers is six years. Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Toyota all say six years. I don’t know of any car manufacturer willing to recommend a longer date.
Why not? Because they know tires after six years, particularly in hot climates, will oxidize and break down, so that the glue holding the tire together starts to degrade, making tread separation far more likely. Car companies may or may not make safety job #1, but they sure do respond to lawsuits, and the more times they get hit with multi-million dollar verdicts for knowingly having defective tires on their vehicles, the more likely they are to do something about it.
Yet, apparently there haven’t been enough lawsuits, because there are still tens of thousands of expired and dangerous tires out there. As Rich Newsome noted while discussing a Yokohama recall, the danger is a matter of high-school chemistry: