What can Van Halen teach us about dangerous and defective tires? In the late 1970s and early 80s, Van Halen not only changed the world of rock & roll, but also ushered in a new era of live music. The band brought truckloads of equipment, pyrotechnics, and Schlitz beer (the PBR of the 80s) into small and medium-sized cities across the world. Because Van Halen was the first major production to perform in many of these venues, there were also major safety concerns.
Van Halen provided each venue a comprehensive list of technical requirements for a safe and successful show. Within those requirements was a request for a bowl of M&M’s with “ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.” 1 If the candy was not in the dressing room or a brown M&M was found, the band would immediately order a complete review of the technical requirements of the contract. 2 In many cases, this review would reveal potentially life-threatening problems. David Lee Roth recently explained the process in this video.
Like Van Halen, Firestone forever changed the world of tires and ushered in new tire regulation. After hundreds of deaths and serious injuries caused by defective Bridgestone/Firestone tires, 3 Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. 4 The TREAD Act was designed to enhance the tire recall process by mandating that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) create new defect reporting requirements and tire labeling guidelines for tires. In response, NHTSA issued several new rules, including an update to the way a Tire Identification Number is created and branded on new tires. 5 The Tire Identification Number is used to identify the manufacturer, size, style, and production date for a tire. This number is commonly known as the DOT Code on a tire. Despite the good intentions of Congress, many of the consumer-friendly rules were dropped after aggressive lobbying efforts by the tire industry. 6
However, NHTSA did reinforce and clarify some existing regulations pertaining to the labeling of tires. Among the existing regulations is a rule from 1971 that mandates the alphanumeric characters used in a tire’s DOT code. 7 The new rule reinstated some letters and provided that only the following letters may be used in DOT codes:
‘‘A, B, C, D, E, F, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, T, U, V, W, X, Y, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0’’
Absent from this list are the letters G, I, O, Q, S, and Z. 8 NHTSA prohibited these letters because they are confusing to consumers and make it more difficult to accurately read the code, register tires, and stay informed of recall information. 9 Due to the expanding number of tire plants and limited two-digit codes, NHTSA has assigned plant codes with these “prohibited” characters in the past. For example, 7G refers to Bridgestone’s tire plant in Poland. However, outside of those limited exceptions, NHTSA has never authorized prohibited codes in the size, manufacturing, or date portions (anything after the first two characters) of the tire DOT code.
In designing the Tire Safety Group website and Tire Facts apps, we followed NHTSA’s lead. When a user requests a free Tire Facts Report with the letters G, I, O, Q, S, or Z in the DOT code, an error is generated and the user is notified of the improper character. We thought this was a smart and user-friendly approach. We were wrong. Despite being the law for forty years, several tires sold in the United States continue to use confusing characters in the size, manufacturing, and date portions of the DOT code.
In addition to labeling guidelines, there are several rules in place that mandate performance requirements for tires sold in the United States. 10 Although it occasionally performs random testing, the Department of Transportation generally does not test tires itself. Instead, tire manufacturers are trusted to perform the testing themselves. Absent a pattern of tire failures, it is impossible to tell if a tire manufacturer has negligently performed this testing or skipped it entirely—except where there is a readily identifiable problem. If a tire manufacturer fails to follow simple labeling rules, it may signal that federal testing requirements have also been ignored. On April 5, 2012, Indonesian Tire Manufacturer PT. Multistrada Arah Sarana recalled 36,000 tires with defective sidewalls that could cause a catastrophic tread separation. 11 These tires were imported by two American companies, American Pacific Industries, Inc. and Omni United. The DOT codes of the recalled tires contain a smorgasbord of prohibited characters (in bold below).
Tires Recalled by PT. Multistrada Arah Sarana:
Achilles Desert Hawk A/P LT235/85R16 with DOT Codes:
5KSQLD0110 through 5KSQLD5210 and
5KSQLD0111 through 5KSQLD4511
Achilles Desert Hawk A/P LT215/85R16 with DOT codes:
5KQQLD0310 through 5KQQLD5210 and
5KQQLD0111 through 5KQQLD2211
Achilles Desert Hawk A/P LT225/75R16 with DOT codes:
5KRQLD1111 through 5KRQLD2311
RADAR RADIAL RLT-9 LT235/85 with DOT codes:
5KSQQR95209 through 5KSQQR95309,
5KSQQR90110 through 5KSQQR95210 and
5KSQQR90111 through 5KSQQR90411
Many of these dangerous tires were in the market for two years prior to the recall. If the tire importers, sellers, or even a consumer identified and reported this seemingly innocent problem to NHTSA, an investigation may have revealed the major safety defect sooner. It is unclear whether NHTSA audits mandatory tire registration databases of manufacturers or DOT codes of tire complaints made to the Government. Nonetheless, in an effort to help consumers on this front, the Tire Safety Group is changing the way it produces a Tire Facts Report.
Effective immediately, the Tire Safety Group has implemented a system to help users identify and report tires with invalid DOT codes. Our software now identifies tire plants assigned with prohibited characters. Outside of these plants, the Tire Safety Group will continue to detect invalid codes. If a tire contains an invalid character, TSG will help users report the defect to NHTSA for further investigation. These changes are live on the TSG website. The Tire Facts app will reflect these changes in the next version, which will be released this month.