Just because a tire looks to be in perfect shape doesn't mean it's safe, say safety experts who are advising motorists that tires that are more than six years old could fail with catastrophic results.
"You can look at a tire that appears to be new, has brand-new tread, never touched the ground, but that tire could be over-aged to the point where the material properties can't withstand the forces when you put it on your car," Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies said in a special report filed for TODAY by Natalie Morales.
A recent government report agreed with Kane, finding that 84 percent of insured tire claims it examined from a number of states involved tires that were more than six years old. A research video showed a tire that had been artificially aged to six years disintegrating under the load of a moving car.
Kane and other safety advocates want tire manufacturers to stamp their products with an expiration date. "We see this in a range of products from washing machine hoses to yogurt," Kane said. "The manufacturers of tires need to do the same thing."
Cracking the codeFew consumers are aware that tires already are stamped with the week and year they were made, and Kane urged motorists to check their tires and to replace any that are older than six years. The code, mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is printed on each tire's sidewall. Usually it's on the outside of the tire, but it may be on the inner sidewall, requiring removal of the tire to see it.
The code will end in either three or four numbers. The first two digits tell the week the tire was made; the last two tell the year of manufacture. So the four-digit number "5005" means the tire was made in the 50th week of 2005.
Four-digit numbers have been used since the year 2000. In the 1990s, three-digit numbers were used, with the first two indicating the week and the last digit indicating the year. So the three-digit number "156" means the tire was made in the 15th week of 1996. Before the 1990s, the codes weren't required.
Safety experts advise replacing any tire that is six years of age or older regardless of its appearance. That also goes for spare tires, which may be unsafe for use even if they've never been used.
A deadly lesson
That's a lesson that Linda Rowan learned through a tragic accident. In 1999, her 10-year-old SUV had a flat. She checked the spare, which was the same age as the car, made sure the tire had full tread and was properly inflated, and mounted it on the vehicle.
"It looked like a good, brand-new tire," she said in Morales' report. "The tread was good on it. I thought it was fine."
Two days later, her son Nicholas took the SUV out. While driving on a highway near their Florida home, the tire failed catastrophically.
"He lost control of the vehicle, it rolled several times, even though he was wearing his seatbelt," Rowan said. "He died."
Rowan has recently reached an undisclosed settlement with the manufacturers of both the tire and the vehicle. Neither company admitted liability, but Rowan is now asking for expiration dates to be stamped on tires.
"If I had known that the tire had expired, I would not have put it on my truck," she said. "I lost my son because of that tire."
Tire manufacturers are resisting efforts to mandate expiration dates on tires.
"People may view the expiration date as the minimum service time they can use the tire, no matter what they do to it, whether they care for it or not, whether they've worn it to the nub," said Dan Zielinski of the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
Safety experts advise that if a tire does fail catastrophically, the driver should not hit the brakes, which can cause the vehicle to swerve out of control. The car will pull suddenly toward the blown tire, and drivers should not jerk the wheel back, which can cause the car to roll.
What drivers should do is immediately back off the accelerator and gently pull the wheel back to straighten the car while it coasts to a stop. The brakes may be applied gingerly once the car has slowed to a manageable speed.