The Investigators: Driving On Danger - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

The Investigators: Driving On Danger

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(WMC TV) - Despite an Action News 5 investigation five years ago that revealed an age code on every tire, 72 more people nationwide have been either hurt or killed in accidents involving aged tires.

Sean E. Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., the preeminent group in tire aging research, released an updated study to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on crashes in which aged tires were investigated as causes.

Since 2008, according to the study, 41 drivers and passengers were injured and 31 were killed due to the failure of tires sold either as new, used or spares -- despite bearing U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) codes indicating they were between five and 11 years old at the point of sale.

Kane argued that consumers either don't know or can't recognize the 4-digit DOT age code on every tire.

"The first two digits are the week of manufacture, and the last two digits are the year of manufacture," said Jay Guiltner, owner of Steele-Guiltner/Grimes Tire Pros stores.

In September 2009, NHTSA required tire manufacturers to imprint the code inside an oval on the outside wall of every tire.

But Kane said the evidence of more injuries and deaths is an indication the federal government should mandate a simpler, more conspicuous code.

"There have been many missed opportunities to put a non-coded date on tires," he said. "We argued (to NHTSA) that changing the DOT from the obscure week-and-year representation to something that was immediately (recognizable) to the average person wouldn't conflict with other possible tire-aging requirements. Any improvements are likely to be negated if consumers still cannot at a glance discern the age of the tire.

"NHTSA has done absolutely nothing to address the issue."

"NHTSA is committed to providing the public with important information related to tire maintenance and safety," countered Derrell Lyles, spokesperson for the agency. "The agency has a number of initiatives underway, including new standards that tire manufacturers are now required to follow for measuring tire fuel efficiency, safety and durability.

"In parallel, NHTSA plans to update and revamp its information on tires to help ensure the public can make informed tire-purchasing decisions at the point of sale and online."

2008 was the last year Kane submitted a tire aging safety study to NHTSA. That study revealed 128 fatalities and 168 injuries in accidents involving tire or tread separation since 1992.

Every one of those accidents involved the failure of a tire six years old or older.

That was also the year The Action News 5 Investigators first reported the accident and subsequent lawsuit of Teresa Taylor.

According to the suit, Taylor was driving her SUV on Interstate 40 in Crittenden County, AR, in 2007 when the tread on her driver's side rear tire -- bought NEW one year before -- separated and shredded. She lost control, crashed -- and her 15-year-old cousin Tevin Pettis of Memphis, a passenger in her vehicle, died in the accident.

Her attorneys' investigation revealed the failing tire's DOT code showed it was manufactured in 2002. They alleged it sat on a shelf at Whitehaven's Sears Auto Center, 1200 Southland Mall, for four years before it was sold new to Taylor in 2006 (for our complete 2008 investigation, please click here).

Five years later, Taylor's suit remains in mediation. Her lead attorney, Julian Bolton of Memphis, said he could not comment. Neither would Sears.

"Sometimes, (tire retailers) are selling tires that they have no idea are aged tires," said Jeff Rosenblum, a Memphis attorney with experience in litigating personal injury and wrongful death cases. "The retailers in our country have an obligation to go through their inventory and to remove old product."

The problem is "old product" sells, particularly in the low-income neighborhoods of the Mid-South. 

Kane's updated study included, for the first time, the sale of used tires.

Jeremy Ellis, assistant manager of Tires for Less in the Bethel Grove neighborhood of South Memphis, advertises used tires for as low as $20. He said he's simply meeting a market demand from his poorest customers.

"Basically, everybody don't (sic) have money for new tires, so we have used tires, and we have reasonably used tires," he said.

He admitted, however, that he is unaware of the DOT code on tires and how to read it.

As he presented what he described as a "pretty good used tire," The Action News 5 Investigators showed him its code and identified its age.

It was an 11-year-old tire.

Most tire manufacturers recommend not selling a new tire with a DOT code older than six years. But well-reputed tire retailers will replenish their new-tire inventories after two years.

"If we haven't sold it in two years, we don't really need to maintain that inventory," said Guiltner. "Any tire that's been out there in service five to six years, we look at fairly closely to look for any aging aspects."

Guiltner said he supports keeping the 4-digit DOT code as it is. "It's got the week and the year of manufacture. It's not a complicated code."

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