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Editor's Notebook

Another Twisted Tale

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 We Americans love to twist the words we think we hear to suit our sensibilities.

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 Politicians understand this, which is why they speak in sound bites.

American media does its part by clouding the facts of the news with buzzwords and hype, scaring instead of informing, stretching reality to suit what sells. "Must see" news at 11, "must read" reports over breakfast.

This is not about the so-called "liberal media;" we can debate that issue another day. Rather it’s about an unfortunate phenomenon in American journalism.

Time was there were three guiding principles for all reporters: 1) objectively present the facts from all sides; 2) be fair and balanced; and 3) See No. 1.

Back in those days, though, good reporters would take the time to learn about the subject they were reporting on. And even the bad ones would get nailed by fact-checking copy editors.

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Today, no such luck. Sure, there are a few hard-working, thorough ones out there, but far too few. And what passes for copy editing today, well don’t get me started.

Thanks to junk journalism and our love for the sensational, we are constantly pushed right past objective fact into the abyss of subjective fiction ®€“ a collision of opposites we’ll call "fact-ion."

We all remember the screaming and pointing that followed the first Bridgestone/Firestone recall, fueled by fact-ion. The recent hub-bub over expiration dates for tires is the most recent case in point.

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And for those asking why the tire industry needs a massive promotional program, wonder no more.

To uncloud the expiration date issue, here is, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

On Sept. 4, the U.K.’s Tyre Industry Council posted an advisory (not a news release or research report as some claimed) on its Web site regarding the use of older tires. Here are all 237 words of that advisory:

"An increase in the number of cars with old tyres identified at recent police roadside tyre checks has led the Tyre Industry Council to issue a warning to motorists of the potential dangers of running a car or van on over age tyres.

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"TIC tyre experts at roadside tyre check in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire identified a number of vehicles with tyres between 10 and 12 years old and one car with two tyres that were 15 years old! Whilst this is not illegal, says the TIC, there are certain circumstances where the ‘aging’ process can render a tyre unserviceable even if it is unused. As the components within the tyre dry out with age, they can separate, causing the tyre to distort and vibrate, and potentially the tyre could fail and deflate.

"Motorists are able to check the age of a tyre by examining the date code on the sidewall of the tyre. If it is 10 years old or over the TIC strongly recommends that it be replaced. The TIC also pointed out that although tyre manufacturers add anti-aging chemicals to rubber compounds they are only active when the tyre is in use; therefore tyres fitted to spare wheels, caravans and trailers are particularly at risk of premature aging brought on by ozone degradation and static ‘sitting’ for lengthy periods. Hence if an unused tyre reaches six years old it should not be placed into service."

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TIC is a non-profit industry "advocacy" group paid for by tiremakers and retailers, and focused on "improving tyre safety awareness." TIC runs the hugely successful national tire safety check program in the U.K. By the way, it’s against the law in the U.K. for motorists to run underinflated, damaged or badly worn tires, and fines can reach $4,000 or so.

Taken in context – and to almost anyone reading it – the point of this advisory was to help motorists avoid those costly fines and, get this, help the tire industry there sell more tires! There were no dire warnings, panic or threats of mayhem. Getting older tires off the road – especially on low-use travel trailers – means more new tires are sold, fewer people get socked with stiff fines, and U.K. motorways are safer. Novel concept, that.

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By and large, the British press made nothing of the advisory. Nothing appeared in the major newspapers like the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Evening Standard or even the Observer. I’m betting, though I don’t know for sure, that this "story" never made it onto the BBC nightly newscast.

But over here, you couldn’t turn a page or flip a channel and not see yet another evil tire industry conspiracy.

According to its Web site (www.strategicsafety.com) Strategic Safety LLC is a for-profit company that "provides research, investigation, analysis, and education on safety issues. With extensive experience in the areas of safety policy and regulation, injury biomechanics, defects, and liability, we deliver effective and innovative strategies that address product hazards."

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What Strategic Safety really does is provide support to plaintiff attorneys looking to sue somebody ®€“ especially those in the automotive business. It’s co-owned by an attorney, a paralegal and an engineer.

Now with that bit of background…

On Sept. 17, Strategic Safety sent a five-page letter to NHTSA with comments on the agency’s final TREAD Act-mandated tire performance standard ruling. In the letter, co-owner and lawyer Sean Kane cited the TIC advisory and other "evidence" to suggest tires need a published expiration date. Sort of like those on dairy products, or those "born on" dates for beer.

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Kane’s letter is posted on Strategic Safety’s Web site. I suggest you read it. Carefully. To support his argument, Kane cites such circumstantial evidence as passages from VW, BMW and Mercedes owner’s manuals regarding the use of "old tires" a well-known warning from the Good Sam Club regarding use of RV tires older than seven years, two pieces of non-tire specific "scientific research" (including one entirely in Italian) and, of course, a rundown of "at least 20 real-world incidents involving catastrophic tread separation failures on tires that were older than six years."

Kane also made note that, "We recently purchased ‘new’ tires that were nearly 20 years old," though he failed to mention when and where these tires were purchased, or the type and size.

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If Strategic Safety’s letter to NHTSA was taken in context ®€“ that is, reporters understood exactly what the company did, what its so-called evidence really was, and that it was chumming for business ®€“ and knew anything about the service and technology tires deliver, little might have been made of the matter.

That was not the case.

Self-promoting Strategic Safety threw a line in the water, and every media outlet, from the Wall Street Journal to USA Today to ABC News, swam swiftly to the bait. And they chewed on every stinking sound bite.

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"The age issue is the tire industry’s dirty little secret," Kane stated authoritatively to the WSJ in Timothy Aeppel’s Sept. 22 "news story" about the need for tire expiration dates. Talk about well-chosen words.

Worse yet, though, is that elsewhere in his "news story," Aeppel takes a sudden hard left off of Objective Reporting Road right onto to Subjective Commentary Blvd. with this "fact-ion":

"It might seem tiremakers would be eager to limit tires’ life span to generate more sales. But doing so also would create havoc in their distribution systems. New tires often sit in warehouses or on store shelves for two years or more. If the industry began recommending that tires not be used beyond a certain age, consumers would likely do the same thing they do when buying steak: look for the ‘use by’ date and refuse to take anything but the newest product."

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With that level of insight, there has to be an executive position for Tim somewhere in this industry.

While doing his media dance, Kane even rolled out the owner of a 1965 Sunbeam that rolled over in 1999 when one of his then 11-year-old tires failed on a trip back and forth between his home in Birmingham, Ala., and a car convention in Montana. The accident left his girlfriend brain damaged, and she is now suing the unnamed tiremaker. The WSJ, ABC and others were all over this guy, who claimed no one ever told him his tires might be a bit old.

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I am not an unsympathetic oaf, but a Sunbeam is a small convertible sports car, and given the age I’m willing to bet it had only lap belts. Never mind that, it was the tires!

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or even a lawyer) to know that any product ®€“ from toothpaste to a pair of bell-bottoms ®€“ loses something as it ages. Nothing will last forever. Tires are no different, and we all know that.

We also know that every tire and application is different, and you can’t assign a uniform "use by" date on a line of tires, let alone the entire spectrum of consumer tires.

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In a perfect world, people would accept responsibility for their actions, or lack thereof. But Americans want, expect, need perfectly foolproof products. Don’t worry about inflation pressure, we’ll put an idiot light in there for ya! Forget about treadwear, we’ll give you a generous warranty! Don’t like flat tires? Heck, we’ll make ‘em so they never go flat!

And in a perfect world, we could all count on getting the whole story from our journalists. But "fact-ion" rules in sensationalistic America, and the accusing finger is once again pointed at the evil tire empire ®€“ as though intentionally maiming an entire customer base was a good business practice.

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We don’t live in a perfect world. The damage is done, and the hill this industry must climb daily to reach any level of positive consumer perception grows even steeper with every bit of "fact-ion".

So it’s up to us – you and me – to lay out the facts.

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