There is no doubt that the tires on the steering axle get the most attention from drivers and maintenance personnel. In many cases, when a tire fails on a drive or trailer position, the driver can still maintain control of the vehicle and guide it to the shoulder without an incident. But the unpredictability of a steer tire failure dictates a higher degree of caution, so decisions regarding tires on the front axle are typically made from a much more conservative standpoint.
The most widely debated issue is definitely centered on the subject of repairing steer tires. In the 1990s, the industry sought regulatory guidance from the Dept. of Transportation when it needed answers to some questions: Is a nail hole repair (stem or plug) of the tread area of a steering axle tire considered a “boot, blowout patch or other ply repair,” and is it prohibited by Section 10(a)(10) of Appendix G to Subchapter B?
At the time, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was not in existence, so the Office of Motor Carrier Research and Standards within the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) provided the answer: No. A nail hole repaired by using self-curing compounds or procured rubber inserts or stems, with a repair unit on the inside of the tire, is not prohibited by Section 10(a)(10) of Appendix G.
Since I am not aware of any expiration on regulatory guidance and I still have a copy of the actual letter from the FHA, I believe that it is still safe to assume that a nail hole repair in the tread area of a steer axle tire is legal. In fact, I would even be willing to go out on a limb and say that since the quality of nail hole repair materials has significantly increased since the 1990s, the practice has never been safer.
That being said, there are still fleets and commercial tire dealers that do not repair steer tires. They feel it is not worth the risk, so they make the choice to limit repairs to drive and trailer positions. The important thing to remember is that it is exactly that, a choice. It’s not illegal or inconsistent with industry recommended practices. Neither the Tire Industry Assn. nor the Rubber Manufacturers Assn. even mention wheel position in their tire repair information. Industry guidelines are very specific when it comes to the size and location of the injury, but the limitations for steer, drive and trailer tires are identical.
So, why do companies refuse to repair tires on the front axle? In my opinion, they are just being conservative. Since the repaired tire can be run out on the trailer in most instances, the casing can still be saved most of the time. And while people may accuse a tire dealer of just wanting to sell a new tire, the liability associated with a repair failure on a steer tire could be catastrophic if it led to a serious or fatal accident. Some companies have made a conscious decision to eliminate any risk, so it’s unfair to criticize them for erring on the side of caution.
On the other hand, there are applications where the repair of a steer tire makes perfect sense. Large flotation tires cannot be run out on the trailer, so the cost of replacement may be difficult to justify when a simple puncture occurs in the tread. Unfortunately, this means that fleets in these situations could be forced to repair the tires themselves if dealers are unwilling to accept the liability. Someone has to assume the risk, so a fleet that insists on repairing steer tires may not have a choice.