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Editor's Notebook

Final Final Finally?

No, but NHTSA’s little tire grading and education scheme is coming in stereo – some day

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Perhaps it is part of an evil master plan: Keep us guessing for so long that we lose all interest and submit to their will.

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But that would be giving NHTSA too much credit, though closet conspiracy theorists might disagree.
Still, we cannot let NHTSA’s best worst effort lull us to sleep.

At this point, even Congress moves faster than the final piece of the Energy Bill of 2007 – the RMA-written part that created an all-new tire testing and “grading” system and what some are convinced will be a multi-million-dollar government-supported consumer tire education program.

Back when that bit of legislation was first concocted, a man named Bush was president and drivers everywhere were freaking out over $2 per gallon gas prices. Freaking out to the point that state lawmakers pointed at tires as the evil-doers preventing American drivers from maxing out their MPGs.

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The RMA wanted to prevent a knee-jerk “50 states/50 solutions” approach by all-too-eager state legislators looking to defend their constituents’ wallets. Nationally, Congress was hankering to do something, and in 2005 it enlisted the National Academy of Science to examine a tire’s role in vehicle fuel economy.

The NAS’s 2006 research report showed that the rolling resistance of modern radial tires contributed only 4% (urban) to 7% (highway) to the fuel consumption of a mid-sized passenger vehicle.

Compared to almost every other vehicle system considered by the NAS, tires were the most fuel-efficient. But because the RMA was trying to forestall Tirelawmageddon, radials became Congress’ sole vehicle component target (at the time). What we ended up with was a chicken-egg law where the ends foretold the means.

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Fast-forward to March 2010 when NHTSA finally issued its “final rule” for the program, which actually wasn’t so “final.” It had indeed sorted through all of the science and tire testing standards and graded and which tires would be included, etc. The means.

But the 195-page rule still hadn’t sorted out the true centerpiece of the rule: a comprehensive consumer education effort. The ends.

NHTSA hinted at what education it expected – tire dealers would carry much of the burden, of course  – but little else. Some, like TIA, imagined piles of taxpayer dollars available to execute this education. Others imagined this effort getting hijacked by plaintiff attorneys and “safety advocates” like Sean Kane’s Safety Research & Strategies.

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With no commitment to a delivery system,  NHTSA decided it needed yet more input before it would execute the final-final rule.

The intervening three-plus years offered periodic red alerts that something was forthcoming. Dates were set, then disregarded.

Meanwhile, as gas prices climbed to $4 per gallon, drivers and lawmakers were squawking less about tires and more about jobs and money. Even with a whole new breed of “fuel-efficient” tires to choose from, fewer new consumer tires were being sold.

Overall miles driven declined sharply, a fall that started in 2007 and persisted for years. The average age of vehicles markedly increased – now past 11 years – as the crash took its toll. Ironically TPMS, fully integrated in 2007, had a greater impact on tire fuel economy; NHTSA’s own November 2012 study of TPMS effectiveness said that the mere presence of TPMS on vehicles resulted in a 55.6% reduction in the likelihood that the vehicle would have severely underinflated tires.

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NHTSAproclaimed that TPMS saved some $511 million for the TPMS-equipped vehicle population!
Now comes head-scratching news from NHTSA in that the final-final rule will be issued in two phases.

No firm release date was set (of course), but NHTSA said the first phase would address its own consumer tire care education offerings, and the second would focus more on explaining the new tire fuel efficiency, safety (wet braking) and treadwear ratings program and labeling scheme. Huh?

I mean, Huh?!?!?

Sadly, NHTSA continues to miss the point. The means is far more important than the ends; an all-new testing and grading and labeling program is a game changer for this industry. How that info is disseminated is clearly secondary. The rest of the world has managed to enact such regulation; we’re stuck debating coloring books and wall posters and PSAs no one will see.

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NHTSA said it plans on working with TIA “prior to finalizing these materials to ensure that the content is accurate and comprehensible.”

Great, but it is incomprehensible and unforgiveable and oh-so-typical that NHTSA would foot-drag long enough for the moment to pass when drivers might actually notice.

Even with an actual, nailed-down rule, will anyone care?

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