Help! Doug: Is It True That New Tires Can Be Dangerous?

May 3, 2010

Q. A relative relayed a story about new tires being sold that are actually quite old and dangerous. Is that possible?

Milk and tires--they both age and deteriorate. The smell of sour milk at least warns me if I ignore the expiration date. However, tires sitting unsold for years, or remaining on a used car too long, subject Americans to something much worse than an upset stomach.

The problem is, according to an ABC News 20/20 report, that tire deterioration becomes critical after aging six years, when the tread of a tire may suddenly disintegrate on the highway. This one-time aired news report provided the tragic illustration of a young man who was killed simply because the tire tread looked adequate on tires that were bought "new" only five years earlier. Authorities investigating the fatal crash discovered that those five year old tires sat in storage for another four years. Everything on the outside looked good, but the material integrity of the tire after nine years was deadly.

The 20/20 report found that both Ford and the British tire industry agree that the closer the age of a tire is to six years from manufacture, and especially when they exceed six years of age, the more danger they pose to the driver and occupants. After 24 years of trying to protect clients from unsafe cars, I never realized a very low mileage older car, usually purchased for a first-time driver could have been a little-old lady's car who last changed her tires a decade ago. I also think of how state safety inspections determine the road-worthiness of a tire simply by measuring tread-depth, without any consideration for age and unseen material deterioration.

The realization that the DOT and the U.S. tire industry know all this, and have absolutely no intention of mandating noticeable expiration dates on tires is outrageous.

Reading the age code on tires requires identifying numbers hard to find and hard to read. You then must decode the last cluster of digits. Why wouldn't the tire industry want this cryptic process replaced with clearly embossed expiration dates on every tire? Wouldn't it help their bottom-line if a recognizable date people would easily notice motivated consumers to change their tires after six years like they change their oil "every three years or 3,000 miles?

Critics accuse larger retailers and "mom-and-pop" shops of criminal negligence as they sell aging tires as brand new. I agree.

To the uninitiated, you decode the cryptic numbers when you find a three or four digit cluster at the end of a very long series of numbers, referenced by the letters "DOT". A three digit cluster indicates ancient tires from the 1990s. The four digits cluster indicates production since 2000. The last two digits of the four reveal the year of manufacture. The first 2 digits indicate the week of production. So "4202" means the tire was made in"2002", during the 2nd week. "2410" indicate tire was manufactured in 2010, during the 24th week.

Does it amaze you that most grocery items, drug store drugs and products all have expiration dates, but there is nothing noticeable to tell you that your tires have aged too long to be safe? The absurdity is that only those enlightened by a story like this learn how to decode the cryptic and hard to find numbers. And, making matters worse, Americans are lead to think they are in safe vehicles if a state's safety inspection passes a vehicle, noting adequate tire tread depth, but overlooking age factor that deteriorates the material under the good tread. I think the threat posed here is as treacherous to every occupant in the vehicle, as well as other motorists, as someone driving drunk.

"Help! Doug," accepts questions about any automotive and many consumer concerns. Email Doug at doug@autobuyerspro.comor call 303-888-8889.

Doug Ehrlich is the owner of Auto Buyer's Pro, the first licensed Buyer's Agent in the country, who has advised and negotiated car deals for over 20,000 consumers nation-wide.

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