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Editor's Notebook

Good Idea and the Law

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As much as I dislike Bill Gates, I will give him credit: He sure knows how to get products registered. Microsoft wants its products on record to prevent piracy and build databases, not for any altruistic safety reason.

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Afterall, the worst thing a little software separation can cause is computer lock-up. Never heard of a PC tossing its keyboard and rolling over.

Millions of software disks will be sold and "voluntarily" registered this year.

The same can’t be said for the millions of tires that will hit the streets in 2002. Or any of the billions that have been sold since 1982.

To say that voluntary tire registration has been an absolute, 100%, complete, unmitigated and consummate failure would be an understatement.

Ignorance, disinterest and a total abdication of authority have combined to create an on-going and epic breech of federal law. And no one seems to really care.

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When mandatory registration became law in 1971, consumerism was at its apex. Advocates claimed the system would help inform consumers should their tires be recalled. Not seeing the forest for the trees, dealers and the NTDRA bitched about registration. "Wasted time," they whined. "Get government off our backs," they cried.

After 11 years of dealer grumbling, the Surface Transportation Act of 1982 made the system "voluntary". Oh, it wasn’t a total victory, though that’s what dealers thought. The revised federal law still mandated that all on-highway tires be registered, but now dealers only had to provide registration cards, fill in the DOT numbers, and complete the dealer identification portion. Customers were left the arduous tasks of voluntarily filling in their names and addresses, voluntarily licking a stamp, and voluntarily popping the card into the mailbox.

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Dealers hailed the new law as a clear-cut win. Then they and the rest of the industry quickly and conveniently forgot all about it. "Voluntary" referred to them, not the customer.

According to 1986 study by NHTSA – the toothless agency charged with enforcing both forms of tire registration – only 18% of all on-highway tires were, in fact, registered under the evil mandatory system. Yet, in the first four years of the dealer-friendly voluntary era, only 11% were registered. That was the one and only compliance study NHTSA ever conducted.

Convinced that 11% was a huge success, NHTSA has rarely even bothered with enforcement. And the consumer advocates who pushed so hard for mandatory registration moved on to the next life-threatening issue.

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Twenty years later, we have become so uninformed and disinterested in registration, one wonders why we bother.

Supposed savior of tire consumers, the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act says absolutely nothing about tire registration, a strong indication that the government and the tire industry have given up the ghost. Where exactly is the "enhancement, accountability and documentation?"

Apparently NHTSA, Congress, tire companies and tire dealers prefer blaring headlines in USA Today as the primary means to inform consumers about tire recalls. If it weren’t for the intrepid souls who peruse the coma-inducing Federal Register or numbing NHTSA Web site, virtually no one would know about most recalls.

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If only 11% of all on-highway tires were registered 20 years ago, what’s the percent today? I can promise you it hasn’t gotten any better. Cooper Chairman Tom Dattilo recently told dealers at the Illinois-Indiana convention that Cooper estimates "only 4% of our tires are registered."

If Cooper dealers manage 4%, what’s the ratio like for others?

CIMS holds a reputed 80% of the tire registration card market, but even its president, Paul Kruder, is hesitant to estimate what the compliance rate is today. "Some guys do a good job, and some guys don’t," he said. "It depends on their environment and attitude. When this system works, it’s the best thing that can happen for consumers."

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Kruder told me that many of his customers do an exemplary job of registering tires. Some are even working to automated registration with their own POS computer systems. But many dealers, including some of the nation’s largest, totally ignore the law, he said. Some don’t even know tire registration is the law. Or, get this, they tell customers that registration is no longer required. If ignorance is bliss, these are some mighty happy people.

Here in the 21st century, tire companies do little to facilitate electronic registration. Some offer the capability to company-owned stores and direct dealers, but none provides an online registration form on dealer Extranets or consumers Web sites.

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Sorry, I take that back. One tire company does let consumers to register online. Uniroyal Canada.

Tiremaker and association Web sites and "safety" brochures aren’t any better. One after another barely mention registration, if at all. Those that do direct consumers to "ask your dealer for a tire registration form." Huh? When did federal law become some kind of premium that people are supposed to ask for?

Retail and commercial customers don’t have to ask for squat, folks. It is, by law, their right to have their tires registered.

The reality of this neglect is the toll it has taken on dealer profits and consumer confidence.

In the media-hyped panic of the Firestone recalls, how much unreimbursed time and money did dealers lose trying to confirm or alleviate customer fears? How many panicked consumers searched for the elusive DOT digits? And how many recalled tires are still on the road because their owners don’t even know?

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Tons of money, too many people and way too many potentially dangerous tires, according to Kruder, all avoidable if we simply followed the law.

Kruder thinks NHTSA’s latest TREAD Act plan to put DOT numbers on both sidewalls is a good one – counter to both the RMA and TANA/ITRA, which feel double-sided DOTs would cost too much and would endanger plant workers who make weekly DOT number changes on hot molds. Therefore, they say, the "corresponding safety improvement" gained from dual DOTs "is not acceptable."

So what is "acceptable?" Folks crawling around under their cars? Dealers losing more money? Whose side are you guys on anyway?

There was even a vague suggestion that we don’t need double DOTs because we already have tire registration. Wow!

NHTSA thinks its plan would cost tiremakers $5.5 million. RMA swags that it’s more like $220 million annually. In the grand scheme of things, Kruder suggested in his comments on NHTSA’s proposal, does it really matter?

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"It’s like comparing…lightening and the lightening bug to suggest that the life-threatening safety hazard, the consumer’s mental anguish in not knowing if their tires are safe, plus the enormous costs of having millions of recalled tires still in highway use, is in any way comparable to" tiremaker costs and safety concerns "associated with placing the tire serial number on both sidewalls," Kruder wrote.

The core issue isn’t how many DOT numbers we use, it’s what we choose to do with them. The fact is we smuggly neglect the law – and the tire buyer suffers for our lawless attitude.

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The tire industry doesn’t like to talk about recalls, but we just can’t shut-up about how safe our products are, about how many trillions of trouble-free miles they travel, how consumers should be confident in our tires.

Earning consumer confidence means being responsible, forthright and law-abiding. Where are any of these when it comes to registration?

If customers don’t do their voluntarily part, shame on them. But as long as we choose to not give them the opportunity, perhaps we are the uncaring corporations the media portrays us as.

Hey, if you don’t want tire registration, then go to work and try to get rid of it. Good luck. But for now, tire registration is a reality, so you scofflaws need to get in line.

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"Gravity," erstwhile magician/actor Harry Anderson once said, "is not only a good idea, it’s the law."

Same with tire registration. It’s high time manufacturers and dealers come back to earth and deal with it.

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