vanChecking your tires could save a life.  Before most of us head off on a family roadtrip, we go through a checklist of what we need to remember.  Check the age of the tires? Not on your list? It ought to be.

Few of us give much thought to the age of our tires on an average day, much less in the press of activity that precedes a family vacation.
Patrick James of Knoxville, Tennessee, will tell you it’s critical.  He found out first hand, unfortunately, and he wants to make sure everyone else finds out this and other critical information before it’s too late.

Losing Lexie
alexis_james.jpgPatrick James knew he hit the jackpot when it came to his daughter, Lexie. 

“She was a dream child.  She was very smart, an honor roll student always working to be the tops in her class,” Patrick proudly explains.  “She was very athletic.  She excelled in fast pitch softball and basketball.  She was very well-liked by her peers and she had many friends.  At her funeral all the kids pulled me down to eye level so they could tell me Alexis was their best friend.”

Yes, at her funeral.  Patrick, his wife, son, and all her friends had to say goodbye to Lexie when she was just 10 years old.  She was riding in a van with good family friends on her way to a softball tournament in another state. A tire separated on the van, causing it to careen out of control and  flip five times. Lexie was thrown from the vehicle.  In the turmoil, she slipped right out of the lap belt she had securely strapped on.  Everyone else in the van escaped with bumps and bruises, but Lexie didn’t survive. 

The heartbreak from the loss is hard enough to cope with.  But the information Patrick discovered after the accident has increased his pain.  That’s because this didn’t have to happen.  Now, Patrick’s doing what he can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The Age of the Tire

tires.jpgHe discovered the tire that separated had been put on the van just prior to the fatal trip.  Patrick says it was identical in size and rating to the original tires on the van.  It appeared to be new and never used, but inspection of the tire after the accident revealed, from the DOT number, that it was 13 years old. That’s older than Lexie was.  But the van owner had no idea. The tire was the unused spare tire and was installed on the van at a tire dealership.  According to Patrick, no mention was made as to the age of the tire or any possible danger.  The accident report said the rear tire “appeared to be in new condition.

What most of us don’t realize is tires “age” over time, whether they are used on the road or not. There is a slow oxidation process that breaks down the internals that hold the tire together.  In many cases, there are no outward signs of this deterioration.  However, because of numerous accidents and wrongful death law suits, along with studies documenting the deterioration, some car and tire manufacturers are now recommending that tires (including the spare) be replaced after six years, regardless of the amount of tread left on the tires. 

Various consumer groups have worked for years tried to get “expiration dates” on tires. Sean Kane with Safety and Research Strategies, a national safety advocacy group, says he’s researched more than 150 serious accidents involving aged tires where the tire had plenty of tread and appeared safe.

“The biggest risk today is the unused spare on a SUV or pickup truck,” Kane says.  “When owners need a new tire and decide to replace it with a spare instead of buying a new one, they could be putting themselves and their families at risk.  Most people don’t know about checking the date of manufacture or the threat of the tire falling apart on the road.”

That’s why his group is actively trying to make the public more aware of the problem.  Just as the date on the packaging tells you when your milk or eggs will go bad, Kane and other consumer advocates believe you should know when your tires will go bad. 

Determining the Age of Your Tires

Manufacturers argue tires age differently, depending on conditions such as climate or temperature. The Rubber Manufacturers Association says there’s no set amount of time when a tire goes bad, so setting a specific period, such as the six years mentioned earlier, doesn’t sit well with them. 

Currently, manufacturers are required by the Department of Transportation to print on the tires the date they were made. But there is no law requiring them to also print an expiration date.  And it isn’t that easy to figure out the date the tires were made.  Sometimes, even the mechanics who put your tire on your car may not know how to read the code.

The date of manufacture is embedded in the U.S. Department of Transportation code that likely is printed on the inner sidewall.  Each letter and number of the DOT represents something significant.  If your tire was manufactured before 2000, the last three indicate the week and year of manufacture.  So, if you see 118 at the end, it means your tire was manufactured in the 11th week of a year ending in 8, which could be 1988 or 1998.  If your tire was manufactured after 2000, then you need to look at the last four numbers. The first two indicate the week it was manufactured and the last two indicate the year—i.e. 2304 would have been manufactured in the 23rd week of 2004.

Patrick has launched his own non-profit group called American Center for Van and Tire Safety and is doing his best to get the word out to others that they and their loved ones may be in danger. He is working closely with Kane to make posting an expiration date a reality.  They’re both fighting to take it one step further and have tires implanted with a micro-chip that would make it simple to notify owners if a tire is recalled for some reason. And they would like to see mechanics trained on how to decipher tire manufacture dates.

None of this can bring Lexie back.  Patrick understands this.  She’ll never realize her dreams of going to college in South Carolina and becoming a Clemson Tiger.  She wanted to be a forensic specialist like the star of the series, Bones. She won’t have the opportunity to find out if that’s the career she truly wants to pursue.  But she is playing a key role in helping protect others.  Through her father’s efforts, this is Lexie’s Legacy.