It’s been almost four years since ABC’s 20/20 investigative report on passenger and light truck tire aging, yet the subject still manages to grab the occasional headline despite the fact that there is still no data linking older tires to accidents. Most recently, the state of Maryland introduced senseless and misguided tire aging legislation that could open the floodgates for other states to pass similar or worse regulations. Even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to produce any definitive statement on tire aging, it isn’t stopping the states from taking matters into their own hands.
Fortunately, this legislation does not apply to truck tires, so fleets and commercial tire dealers in Maryland would not be subjected to any additional regulations if it manages to pass. But that doesn’t mean introduction of the bill would prevent government officials in other states from adopting the same “sky is falling” logic to determine that old casings are the cause of roadside tire debris. Despite the complete lack of scientific data, the reactionary consumer advocates remain convinced that after tires reach a magic date, they pose an imminent threat to motorist safety.
While age will always be a factor in determining the service status of a tire or casing, there are so many other variables that must be considered. Perhaps the most obvious is the physical condition of the rubber. When tires are not used for extended periods and directly exposed to ozone and ultraviolet (UV) light, they go through a natural process called “weather checking.” As long as the damage doesn’t extend to the body or belt plies, it may be purely cosmetic and pose minimal risk to the driver if the tire is properly inflated and not overloaded. I recently sat down with an engineer from a major tire manufacturer to discuss the subject of tire aging, and we laughed about the recreational vehicle snowbirds who insisted that they purchased a bad set of tires because the “sidewalls were all dried out.” Of course, they usually leave out the fact that the “dried out” tires were facing south for months and the vehicle was never moved, but that doesn’t stop them from demanding a refund. When tires are allowed to sit out in the sun for extended periods of time, ozone and UV damage is unavoidable.
Likewise, the periodic use of many tire dressings and sidewall conditioners can have an adverse affect on the condition of the rubber. The majority of tire companies will say that the best way to preserve the appearance of a tire is to use it regularly and keep it clean, properly inflated, and out of the sunlight when it is stored for more than a few weeks. It’s also important to note that sidewall paint applied during the retread process will help preserve the appearance to some degree, but it cannot reverse the natural effects of tire age.
The bottom line is that tires and casings do not have an expiration date. And since tire prices will continue to climb, placing an overly restrictive age limitation on casings may result in unnecessary and higher maintenance costs. Fleets should work closely with their tire manufacturers and retread partners to perform regular scrap analysis so perfectly good assets are not being wasted. If the data indicates that casings are more prone to failure after a certain age, then any restriction will be justified. But if fleets pull casing age limits out of the sky, please keep them private so more legislators don’t get a case of Chicken Little and decide to save motorists from safety hazards that do not exist.