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What Could Sen. Markey Want – and How Far Will He Go?

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For an industry that claims an almost genetic aversion to government involvement, we sure seem to find ways to garner the attention of regulatory agencies and vote-seeking legislators.

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It’s almost as if we intentionally seek such intervention.

While it would be easy to dismiss Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) prodding of the Department of Transportation and our friends at NHTSA in the aftermath of ABC News’ shotgun attack on the U.S. tire industry (‘it’s recalled tires, no it’s old tires, no it’s used tires’), that would be a mistake.

Because at the heart of Markey’s inquiries about the lack of an easy-to-use online TIN lookup is an indictment of our entire tire registration and recall system. Our current system was hatched in the wake of the late-1970s recall of Firestone 500 tires when the system overloaded under the weight of millions and millions of crippled radials.

The government wanted a mandatory registration system, putting the onus on tire retailers to complete and mail in tire registration data. Tiremakers and the then-National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association, however, turned that away, giving birth to a completely voluntary system. Register the tires or don’t, do it for the customer or give them the cards to do it themselves. Whatever.

Something was better than nothing, I suppose. But despite the hard work of CIMS and the occasional attention of tiremakers, the current system is showing its warts.

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So now Markey wants to know why a government website fails to deliver an easy answer to inquiring citizens. Well, that’s a really long story, but in today’s online no-newspaper world, it becomes more and more important to find ways to reach consumers. Whether we’re talking about a blender that could electrocute you or a car with a faulty ignition, it cannot be a ‘buyer beware’ world anymore.

In his letter to the DOT and NHTSA, Sen. Markey said, “There is no database that is searchable by TINs on NHTSA’s database and often no way for consumers, vendors or manufacturers to quickly and easily access and read the TINs on tires themselves. This has led to accidents, injuries and deaths as people drove in vehicles with recalled tires that later failed.” Markey specifically asked if the DOT would create a searchable TIN database and “if not, why not?”

Yes, why not. A 28-year-old plaintiff attorney supposedly developed an app for that. And if he can do that for the benefit of his fellow man, why can’t our government?

The next logical step for Markey is to revisit the entire tire registration system. Because, after all, that’s where the system really breaks down. Especially if, as some media have asserted, less than 50% of tires are actually registered. Particularly if tiremakers chose the least expensive way to mail recall notices to those who have registered their rubber.

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An errant blender is one thing, but tires are another. We tell drivers about the size of the contact patch, how that #10 envelope-sized contact point is the only thing keeping them from a tragic disaster, how they need to keep their tires in proper working order.

And now the government is poised to call us out on that.

I wonder if that is the only tire issue the government cares to turn over.

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If you don’t think this is a serious issue, consider that the National Transportation Safety Board is now fully engaged in the tire sector. The only time NTSB is ever heard from is when there is an unfortunate major transportation catastrophe, like a plane crash or train accident or sunk ship.

So its interest in tires must near catastrophe level, right?

Don Karol, one of NTSB’s top-level chiefs, has made tires a focal point for the agency. In his May 15 blog post, Karol said:

“Although the special investigation is still in its early stages, several investigative areas are being considered, including proper tire maintenance procedures, the tire recall process, potential degradation of tires due to aging, vehicle handling and driver response following a tire disablement, and technological and manufacturing innovations.

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“Additionally, investigators will be evaluating numerous data sources to determine the overall scope of the tire-related crash problem and will be completing an analysis of the involved tires to determine the reasons for the tread separations.

“A tire can fail for many reasons while a vehicle is moving. These include operation of the tire in an underinflated or overinflated condition, overloading of the tire, insufficient tread or uneven wear, tire punctures, manufacturing defects, and degradation of the tire due to age and operating environment.

“For more than a decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been conducting research into what happens to tires as they age. Although it’s clear that tires degrade over time, there are still debates among manufacturers and safety advocates about their service life.”

So, one could interpret that as meaning the NTSB is prepared to step into the tire aging and used tire issues. Or is it?

Further down the blog post, Karol refocuses on tire registration: “As part of our investigation, we’ll be examining the tire recall process to identify the responsibilities of the regulator, the manufacturer, the tire sales facility, and the consumer to determine if safety improvements are warranted.”

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Speaking of NHTSA, that agency is really under fire right now, and for more than tires and tire registration and tire recalls.

This whole GM debacle weighs heavily on NHTSA, especially since it’s now known that the agency was well aware of the ignition switch problems plaguing the automaker for the past 10 years – and did nothing about it.

Detractors are not only angry about NHTSA’s obvious failures, they also point to NHTSA’s $800 million budget and that its administrative expenses take up 16% of that and that last year its 715 employees received raises averaging $4,000.

Smart money says that agency will get a stem-to-stern overhaul by the 2016 elections, if not by the end of this year. And expect NHTSA to become far more aggressive in seeking and addressing safety issues.

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And speaking of broken – and likely without a chance for revival – news that Sears Holding posted horrid results for the first quarter of 2014 was really no surprise. It was yet another in a long, long line of consecutive negative financials issued by the operator of Sears and Kmart stores.

Sears’ weak response was to announce the closure of another 80 stores this year, leaving it with some 1,900 stores in its retail system.

As I mentioned recently, some observers don’t see a future for Sears Holding. One wonders in whose hands its auto center business will land.

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