Makers, safety activists say U.S. regulations need to do more to protect drivers from under-inflation.
David Shepardson - Detroit News - Feb. 16, 2007
WASHINGTON - The tire industry, waging a six-year battle to force automakers to do more to warn drivers of the dangers of under-inflated tires, returns to court today, seeking to overturn a landmark tire regulation.
Tire makers, along with a high-profile safety advocacy group, say the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's regulation falls woefully short of what Congress intended when it passed a 2000 law requiring that all vehicles be equipped with a tire pressure monitor.
The legislation came in the wake of a recall of 13 million tires on Ford Explorers and other vehicles that were linked to nearly 280 deaths.
"NHTSA's watered-down standards will cause more tire failures, leading to more deaths, injuries and property damage than standards meeting statutory requirements," lawyers for Public Citizen, the safety advocacy group, wrote in a legal brief filed late last month.
Public Citizen, along with tire makers Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Bridgestone/Firestone North America, Cooper Tire & Rubber and Pirelli Tire, and the industry trade group Tire Industry Association, filed the suit against the U.S. Transportation Department and NHTSA.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will hear their challenge to the NHTSA rule today, more than three years after another appeals court threw out NHTSA's first tire pressure regulation, issued in 2002. It has been estimated that the requirements will cost automakers up to $1.2 billion annually to fully implement, beginning in the 2008 model year. The companies argue that the lawsuit is an attempt by the tire industry to shift their warranty costs onto the automakers.
Tire makers say NHTSA's regulation puts vehicle drivers and passengers at risk because it fails to provide for warning drivers of low tire pressure soon enough, doesn't require the systems to work with replacement tires and allows the monitors to be tested under conditions that don't take into account cold weather extremes, which can alter tire performance.
The regulation being challenged mandates that tire pressure monitoring systems alert drivers if any tire is 25 percent or more below the recommended inflation level and is driven for more than 20 minutes.
A radio transmitter sends a signal to an onboard computer that lights a warning signal on the dashboard.
The rule under challenge also says all testing on the system would be done on a test track in San Angelo, Texas, which critics said would not take into account cold weather.
The regulation was issued in April 2005, after an appeals court ruled in August 2003 that NHTSA's original 2002 regulation, which set the alert level at 30 percent below recommended inflation, adopted "a standard that permits plainly inferior systems" that was "arbitrary and capricious."
The April 2005 rule was weakened from several earlier NHTSA proposals. NHTSA rejected calls from Public Citizen and the American Automobile Association to set the alert level at 20 percent below the recommended inflation. The agency also relaxed other requirements, including no longer requiring that the monitoring systems work with replacement tires or spares, saying "we expect a typical vehicle will outlast its original set of tires."
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers -- a trade group that represents nine automakers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp. -- said tire makers are pursuing the issue in court because they want to shift costs to auto companies. The alliance has intervened in the lawsuit as a defendant.
"This case is not about safety," Bergquist said. "The tire makers are using the courts in their effort to avoid paying warranty claims. This lawsuit is an attempt by tire manufacturers to push the burden of their warranty costs on consumers and automakers."
Tire companies acknowledge that they are concerned about higher warranty costs, lawsuits and customer dissatisfaction.
"Tire manufacturers and the government should strive in developing standards to make tires safer and should not adopt a less safer alternative," wrote James Stroble, manager of product analysis at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, in a court filing.
"Minimizing tire failures is a very important goal of my company."
NHTSA says it was within its authority to write the regulation and honored the intent of Congress.
It also emphasized that drivers "subject to repeated warnings when a tire is only slightly under-inflated would quickly become frustrated by the frequent exercise of re-inflating a tire by only a small amount."
Automakers say the burden belongs on tire makers.
"Their own products will fail if more stringent regulations are not imposed on someone else -- in this case, the vehicle manufacturers," wrote Erika Jones, who represents the automakers, in a court brief. "But the product failure that the tire manufacturers cite -- failure due to severe under-inflation -- is preventable by the tire manufacturers themselves."
Spokesmen for Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler said 70 percent of 2007 model vehicles under 10,000 pounds have the tire pressure monitoring systems, and they will be in all 2008 models, as required.