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Exploring and Explaining the Pieces of a Truly Weird Tire Day

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The day after what was truly the most bizarre day for the American tire industry that I can recall, things got even weirder.

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Oh, before I forget, Welcome to National Tire Safety Awareness Month!!!!! Your White House thanks you for your cooperation.

Anyway, by now you have read that the National Transportation Safety Board held a two-day “symposium” on Dec. 9 and 10 to discuss tires and tire problems and tire recalls and consumer tire awareness and tire safety-related programs and tire technology. They called it a “symposium” to make it sound important and groundbreaking.

Based on the agenda offered, there was more ground pawing than breaking, and still no answer to these key questions:

Such as, “Why did we need a symposium?”

And, “Why are we still stammering and staring at the same old problems?”

As has been rightly pointed out by others, when it comes to tires the NTSB has been a sideliner. Only when ABC-TV came a-calling earlier this year did the NTSB – which is an investigative body that makes recommendations, not an administrative or regulatory unit that can enact rules and regulations – spring into action. And the best way to demonstrate care and concern is to call a meeting, thus the “symposium,” even one with an unusual collection of participants and no real end-game.

[Read about NTSB’s action and reaction to ABC-TVs tire “investigation” here: What Did We Learn From ABC’s Investigation?]

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At the time of ABC-TV’s ratings grabber in mid-May, the NTSB homed in on two things: the impact of age on tires (tire aging) , and apparent problems with tire recalls. Since that time, NHTSA’s crack science team has dismissed tire aging as a concern (unless you live in, say, Phoenix or drive an Explorer with 10 people in it across Florida on winter tires), and no one has even mentioned tire recalls or tire registration (well, except us: To Put This in Your Hands, October 2014].

Regardless the target, the NTSB could and would do no more than make recommendations. So one wonders what was really to be gained from holding that “symposium.”

While a vivid example of Washington wheel spinning, that wasn’t even the weird part. Before the first panel was even seated [“Tire Disablement and Vehicle Dynamics”] on the morning of Dec. 9, things really got weird.

Weird in an uncomfortable way.

The Obama Administration deemed the morning of Dec. 9 as the perfect time to unleash its own (and supposedly unique and separate) answer to tire woes – but dealt only with tire rolling resistance, energy independence and how Americans can save money by spending more money.

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The president wasn’t even there; he was politicking in Nashville, leaving Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and John Podesta, counselor to the president, to handle the big reveal.

The centerpiece of the new Administration Approved program is a partnership with NASCAR, tire manufacturers, fuel companies, convenience store operators, and select retailers (the only independent tire dealer specifically mentioned was Discount Tire/America’s Tire) to “raise awareness of tire safety and actions to cut carbon pollution and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

And they kicked the whole thing off by declaring the period Dec. 9, 2014, through Jan. 9, 2015, as National Tire Safety Awareness Month!

In the hokum and razzamatazz that is Washington, D.C., where fires are only fought well after the building is ash, this was another shining example of trying to do too much with too little, and avoiding the real problem: NHTSA’s seven-year failure to deliver, as Congress mandated, a complete tire fuel efficiency, wet braking and treadwear testing and grading system, with an accompanying tire labeling program and comprehensive consumer education program.

Buried in the White House announcement was word that we’ll have to wait until “in 2017” for NHTSA to unveil that program, something the European Union, Japan and South Korea have had in place for years.

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[Side Note: In February 2013, Tire Review’s cover feature was “Tire Labeling ABCs”, and its author Rick Barnhart and I were concerned that NHTSA would somehow spring into action, announce its final tire testing and labeling rules, and effectively blow-up our story. “Just read and commented on the story about the White House’s tire program announcement,” Barnhart wrote me the other day. “Of course I was shaking my head as I read it. When we did the February 2013 cover article I was concerned that things would change before the article came out. Then I subscribed to Federal Register to see when NHTSA made a rule. Now it’s almost two years later and MAYBE in two more years we will have something. By that time they won’t remember what they started out to do!”]

Meanwhile, based on new car sales data, fuel efficiency is quickly becoming a non-factor in vehicle and tire selection. At this writing, the gas station down the street is pouring at $2.49 per gallon; some analysts see $2 per gallon on the near horizon. In other words, Americans aren’t freaking about fuel prices anymore.

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Tire prices are another matter, and this is where weird gets worse.

“Keeping tires properly inflated and choosing low-rolling resistant tires can have a national impact. If 10 million drivers kept their tires properly inflated, they could save nearly $500 million dollars and 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year,” the White House press release read. “And if just 10% of consumers buying aftermarket tires bought tires that were 10% more efficient, the annual savings would be more than $200 million and 690,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution.”

Don’t disagree (pretty much), but the White House failed to acknowledge the price significant differential between low rolling resistance tires and standard rubber. In a market where consumers are down-tiering their tire buys, does it seem likely that many Americans are going to jump on the LRR Tire Train?

Especially when there is no certifiable way for an American consumer to see a tire brand/model’s fuel efficiency and really understand how that buying choice will impact their wallet…like consumers in Europe and Japan and South Korea can.

Back across town at the NTSB “symposium,” a glint of common sense advanced when during the panel discussion devoted to “Tire Registration and Recall” RMA vice president Tracey Norberg said voluntary tire registration wasn’t working that we needed to return to mandatory registration. Her statement was backed by a news release from the RMA outlining “four common-sense steps that can have a positive effect on highway and motor vehicle safety.”

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Those four recommendations plowed no new ground, but at least the RMA did something other than stare blankly and kick the can some more. One can argue the lack of originality, but no one else offered any actionable steps that could actually make a difference.

In addition to calling for a return to mandatory registration (which RMA claimed had a success rate of at least 90% among dealers), the tiremaker group called for NHTSA to create an online TIN look-up tool so retailers and drivers can quickly see if their tires are subject to a current recall; called for states to enact legislation to prohibit the sale of “unsafe used tires” (which were not specifically defined); and called for states to “incorporate tire care and maintenance messages into highway safety programs.”

Simple and straight-forward; you see a problem, you don’t stare at it, you get it fixed. Too many years have been wasted dancing around some of these issues, perhaps hoping that neglect will make them go away. And say what you will about RMA’s four-point scheme, at least someone came to the table with a plan.

That common sense approach, though, is exactly why TIA quickly mustered up the words to unequivocally say that it would fight RMA’s mandatory tire registration proposal. More consumer education is needed, TIA claimed in its release.

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Because, after all, it’s not the industry’s fault, not the dealer’s fault, not the association’s fault, not the tiremaker’s fault – it is the consumers’ fault. If we teach them better…

TIA senior vice president of training Kevin Rohlwing “pointed to the fact that NHTSA, RMA and tire manufacturers have made little to no effort to educate consumers, as well as the fact that low registration rates are more reflective of consumer apathy than the lack of compliance on the part of independent tire dealers.”

I guess if “consumer apathy” as the cause is, in fact, a real fact, we’d have seen some research on that, right?

Quoting the TIA news release further: “It’s important for the industry to recognize that while the RMA’s solution to the tire registration problem is to legislate rather than educate, they took the reverse approach when commenting on tire service life,” said Rohlwing. “During the panel (at the NTSB ‘symposium’) on tire aging, RMA repeatedly defended their ‘educate not legislate’ approach citing the lack of scientific data that proves legislation is necessary. Interestingly enough, there is a similar lack of data regarding the number of retailers who supply the registration cards in accordance with the law and the percentage of consumers who follow thru (sic) with the registration process.”

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During his panel discussion presentation on registration and recalls, Rohlwing did not offer a counter to Norberg’s assessment that registration rates among independent tire dealers, mass merchants and even car dealers was “perhaps” in the low single digits. He only offered that “there is no accurate way to measure” registration compliance among those retail groups.

Still, as you would have read in the October 2014 issue of Tire Review, TIA itself uses 17% as the compliance figure among just independent dealers. That number, according to TIA, is “a consensus” of what NHTSA, tire manufacturers and registration system provider CIMS “generally report” as representative of the independent tire dealer body.

Of course, TIA also announced that it would produce a new consumer video – “Tire Safety Starts with Registration” – “to promote voluntary registration and educate consumers on the importance of registering their tires.”

We’ve said this before and we’ll say it yet again: This industry is losing the PR war, and prefers to stand it’s ground to the detriment of all instead of sitting down like adults and reaching a real-world conclusion, even if it means giving up some ground.

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When it comes to the question of tire registration, history shows that we had a decade of high registration rates with a mandatory system and three decades of failure with a voluntary system. If a clean, complete tire registration system is vital for consumer safety, then it’s time for this industry to step up and really fix the problem.

Consumer education is NOT the answer. Not until we come up with enough money to buy primetime spots on “Dancing With the Stars.” That may sound snarky, but that is the truth in 21st Century America. Check-off program, anyone?

Back to TIA’s release: “We are incredibly disappointed that RMA supports a legislative solution to the problem of low tire registration rates rather than educational,” remarked Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president. “TIA has been working with RMA on a number of legislative issues like tire repair and used tires over the past few years, but there have been no discussions related to mandatory tire registration. We had talked about working together to educate and improve voluntary numbers, so it was a total shock to hear that they are proposing legislation over education.”

It’s actually the body of independent tire dealers in the U.S. who should be disappointed; disappointed in the lack of leadership in this industry; disappointed in the failings of government and associations to earnestly get ahead of and solve problems instead of dragging their feet; disappointed in those who totally miss the reality of issues because “there is no science;” and disappointed in the lack of addressing issues like tire aging and registration and used tires and tire repair and all of the nagging, troublesome problems that continue to plague this industry and unnecessarily disrupt – even financially damage – their businesses.

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But I guess that’s too weird. That’s business as usual.

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