Vehicle Safety 101: The Importance of Your Tires

By Rafael Marshall, PhD

In October 2015, the NTSB released a passenger vehicle tire safety special investigation report and Safety Alert for consumers on crash risks associated with improper tire care. As part of National Tire Safety Week, we’d like to take a look at how industry and government are working to address tire safety since we released those reports.

In 2015, we reported that a total of 539 people died in tire-related crashes in passenger vehicles in 2013. The most recent data available now show that, in 2014, 596 people died in tire-related crashes—an increase of 57 deaths. And, each year, about 33,000 passenger vehicle tire-related crashes occur, resulting in about 19,000 injuries.

Tire tread separation
Tire tread separation

Recently, in Jupiter Florida, a tire tread separation – where the tread of the tire separated itself from the casing or body of the tire – caused a driver of a minivan to lose control, hit a wall, and then spin into the path of another vehicle. As a result, six of the minivan occupants died and two were injured. The NTSB believes that a majority of tire-related crashes are preventable and much more can be done to prevent tire-failure-related crashes, such as this one.

Many in the tire industry recognize the importance of reducing tire-related crashes and are working to remedy some of the issues identified by the NTSB in its passenger vehicle tire safety report. For example, we urged the American Automobile Association and the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) to work together to evaluate the effectiveness of current tire safety efforts in influencing consumer tire purchase and maintenance behaviors. Since then, the two groups have agreed to collaborate on a publication that includes best practices and strategies for other stakeholders also working to increase awareness about the importance of routine tire observation and maintenance.

Additionally, the RMA will continue to provide resources on this topic as part of its Be Tire Smart –Play Your Part program.

We also asked 10 tire manufacturers to put tire safety recall information on their websites in a format that is searchable by tire identification number (TIN) as well as by brand and model. In response, the RMA reported that it is working with its members to develop a user-friendly lookup tool containing the TIN information for all recalls in the United States for the past 15 years.

Individual tire manufacturers have also increased their advocacy in this area. In 2015, Michelin launched Beyond the Driving Test to improve teen driving safety through better education about the importance of maintaining tires. Michelin’s goal is for all 50 states to include comprehensive tire safety information in their driver’s education curricula by the year 2020.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently replied to our recommendations on some very specific ways it can help to improve tire safety (see our special investigation report for a complete list of recommendations); their response is still under review. Nevertheless, we are pleased that NHTSA continues to be an advocate for safety in this arena through its Tire Wise site, which provides critical safety information related to proper care and maintenance of tires.

As a result of the FAST Act becoming law in December 2015, some of our most critical recommendations to improve tire safety will likely be addressed. The Tire Efficiency, Safety and Registration Act requires independent tire dealers to electronically submit tire registration data and maintain a system of records for tires sold and leased. It also requires DOT to establish a publicly available and searchable electronic database of tire recall information that is searchable by the TIN. But unless the DOT requires tire manufacturers to include the complete TIN on both the inboard and outboard sidewalls of a tire, then tire purchasers may mistakenly enter their partial TIN in the searchable database instead of their full TIN, thus making the database less effective.

The NTSB’s 2015 special investigation report focused on passenger vehicle tires, but commercial vehicle tire safety is also an area of concern. Commercial vehicles include heavy trucks and motorcoaches, which carry heavy loads (cargo and passengers) and require specialty tires that must meet rigorous tire specifications.

One example of an accident investigated by NTSB involving a commercial vehicle showed how a lack of proper tire care can lead to deadly consequences.

Image of right steer axle tire of the Sherman, TX, accident motorcoach
Image of right steer axle tire of the Sherman, TX, accident motorcoach

On August 8, 2008, a motorcoach was traveling northbound on a highway in Sherman, Texas, when its right steer axle tire failed. The blowout caused the motorcoach to depart the roadway, override a concrete curb, and strike a metal bridge railing. The motorcoach ultimately went through the railing and fell off the bridge. As a result of the accident, 17 motorcoach passengers died, and 39 people received minor-to-serious injuries. The NTSB found that the driver lost control of the vehicle after the sidewall, belting, and body ply separated within the tire due to being at low pressure for an extended period.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s latest Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2014, vehicle-related factors contribute to about 6 percent of fatal crashes involving large trucks. “Tires” was the most common vehicle-related factor in these crashes.

Particularly concerning is that the number of tire-related out-of-service violations for commercial vehicles have increased over the past three years, according to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. In 2015, 13.9 percent of vehicle-related out-of-service violations were for tires/wheels, making it the fourth most cited area. The most common issues cited for tires were flats and audible air leaks.

To prevent crashes caused by tire-related issues, the CVSA has placed special emphasis on tire safety at this year’s International Roadcheck, which is to take place June 7-9. International Roadcheck is a 72-hour period when inspectors in jurisdictions across North America perform large truck and bus safety inspections. Inspectors will more closely check tires – for example, measuring the tire tread depth, checking the tire pressure, checking to make sure no items are lodged between dual tires, and examining the overall condition of the tire to make sure no deep cuts or bulges exist in the sidewalls of the tire.

As we approach summer and make plans for family vacations or plan that long-haul trip to deliver important goods to customers, take a moment to ask: are my tires properly inflated, are they the proper tread depth, and are they used or worn?

To ask anything less is a crash waiting to happen.

To learn more about tire safety, read the NTSB’s safety alert on tires, visit NHTSA’s tire safety website or visit the RMA’s tire safety website.

Dr. Marshall is a Human Factors investigator in the Office of Highway Safety. He was the lead author of the tire special investigative report.

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