Tougher standards for car and light truck tires are on the way -- possibly as early as the fall -- but the details still have to be worked out between federal auto safety officials proposing them and tiremakers, who assert they're too stringent, and are unneccesary in any case.
The proposal comes as one result of the three-year-old Ford Explorer/Firestone controversy over tire failures that were blamed for 287 deaths and which resulted in millions of tires being recalled. The controversy also resulted in the dissolution of a century-old partnership between Ford and Firestone.
Congressional hearings last year resulted in legislation mandating that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) update current standards, which were set in 1967. The agency's proposal would establish more stringent requirements for tires' durability, especially under stresses such as heat, under-inflation, and hard driving maneuvers.
The requirements also would cover the ability of tires to remain on a wheel after striking road hazards such as potholes, or after a failure.
The agency sais that although about one-third of the 287 million tires sold in the United States every year might have to be redesigned, the new rules could save 27 lives and prevent 667 injuries a year from crashes caused by blowouts or other tire failures. It also estimated the standards would cost the tire industry $282 million annually, or about $7.2 million for each life saved.
The 35-year-old standards currently in effect were set before steel-belted radial tires came into widespread use and before the surge in popularity of sport utility vehicles, vans and pickups, which now account for about half the new vehicles sold.
The Other Side of the Coin
Of course there are two sides to every story. Tire manufacturers have been using terms like "unmitigated disaster" to describe what they believe could be the impact of the new tire regulations.
The Rubber Manufacturers Association, the lobbying group representing 120 companies including all major domestic tire makers, claims NHTSA's cost figures are grossly inaccurate. It says complying with the rules would cost $1.5 billion in the first year and about $400 million a year after that.
The association also estimates that up to 42 percent of passenger car tires and up to 54 percent of truck tires would fail the tests.
And it said only about one in every 1 million tires are cited as the cause of an accident, and most of those are failures from punctures or road hazards.
General Motors Corp. said the new tires would lead to a "dramatic" decrease in fuel economy, because their rolling resistance would increase.
"There is no safety justification for the tire selection amendments...and no objective evidence that they will yield any safety benefit," GM said.
GM and the tire makers said that regardless of what rules NHTSA finally proposes, they should be delayed for several years to give companies time to meet the standards.
How Does This Affect You?
When the tiremakers and even the regulators start talking about the high cost of implementing new safety standards, keep one hand on your pocketbook. Those costs, real or imagined, are sure to be passed on to you.
But on the other hand, increased safety and durability of tires can result in savings due to longer intervals between replacements, fewer failures of tires in service, and most important of all, fewer accidents due to poorly manufactured tires.
Beyond all economic considerations, it's impossible to put a price tag on the life of a single driver. NHTSA's slogan has it right: "Tire Safety -- Everything Rides On It."