Flip open the dictionary to the word new and you'll see Webster says it means, “Having existed or having been made but a short time."
When you're shopping for tires, investigators at our sister station, WMAR in Baltimore, found that word may not mean the same thing. In fact, the tires sold on store shelves as new could be years old.
Hank Price’s pulse was racing as he was heading home.
“If I had a truck on the side of me I would have been dead today. Honestly," said Price.
Price was driving home on the busy highway when a separating tire sent him suddenly to the side of the road. He said, "I would not want to see a family or anybody go through what I did."
Price said he had a close call on a set of tires with a secret he claims he never knew. It’s a secret your tires could be keeping as well, according to Maryland Delegate Ben Kramer, who says, "Consumers are really unaware of this issue."
Kramer said many are unaware the tires they’re buying may be labeled as new simply because they’ve never been driven. That doesn't mean they traveled immediately from the factory to your car. Kramer explained, “They think it's a new tire, but it may be four, five, six, sometimes as old as 10 years."
Those tires have just been treading time on store shelves and you, as a customer, have no idea how long they’ve been sitting. Hank Price said he didn’t know, “I didn't look at the date or anything. They're new tires."
Price said he bought new tires from Mr. Tire in Annapolis, but it wasn't until his wild ride on Route 50 that he learned something surprising about his purchase. He said, "They gave me tires that were eight years old."
Price’s invoice indicates that tires made in 2003 were sold to him as new in 2011. And that's perfectly legal. There’s no regulation at the state or federal level that says companies can't sell any age tire as new. But plenty of people, including auto safety advocate Sean Kane, say they shouldn't.
Kane is the president and founder of Safety Research and Strategies, a private advocacy firm whose work has lead to federal investigations and recalls. When it comes to tire aging he said, "The internal degradation is really the problem. You can't see it and that's what makes it so dangerous."
Kane has researched this issue for 10 years and considers aging tires a hidden danger. But stores sell them out in the open. They’re allowed to.
"Unfortunately it's going to take state level legislation to get us to the point where the sellers are regulated because it's taking a long time to get to a federal regulation."
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show the agency has been looking at the issue of tire aging for at least a decade. In a recent industry conference presentation an agency representative said 90 deaths and more than 3,000 injuries were "probably caused by tire aging or where tire aging was a significant factor."
The agency's stats are dated though, with rubber industry experts pointing to newer studies showing tire related crashes are down significantly along with injuries since the implementation of newer regulations related to tires.
Although NHTSA says aged tires are “prone to failure” and that “tire aging occurs whether a tire is driven or not,” the agency has made no official statement on tire aging for sales or use after years of research. Car makers have made a statement though, using their owner’s manuals.
Our investigators found strong language indicating auto manufacturers have a stance on this issue. For example, Ford’s manual said tires should be replaced after six years regardless of wear. Volkswagen tells drivers tires age even if they’re not being used and recommends replacing tires that are six years old and older. Porsche takes it’s position farthest, writing in its manual that under no circumstances should tires older than six years be used on your Porsche.
But that's assuming you know the age of the tires you bought. Each one is time stamped by the U.S. Department of Transportation with the week and year it was made, but stores are under no obligation to tell you. Delegate Kramer said, "It's a dirty little secret they are desirous to keeping under wraps."
Kramer has been trying to bring tire age to your attention, saying, "Consumers have no clue that this is an issue." He’s pitched bills in the last two sessions of the General Assembly. In the most recent session he proposed House Bill 1110, requiring retailers to tell you if a tire you're buying is more than three years past its manufacturing date. The Rubber Manufacturer's Association fought against it, with Vice President Dan Zielinski saying, "There's no scientific or technical data to back up the assertion that chronological age is a performance indicator for tires."
Zielinski’s argument is a persuasive one, helping to stop proposed legislation regarding tire aging in California, Florida and now Maryland. Kramer’s bill never made it out of committee so there's no warning when you shop for tires. Zielinski says there’s nothing to show you need one, "I think consumers should feel confident that well established tire dealers, knowledgeable tire dealers properly store their inventory, they move their inventory quickly and they replenish their inventory in a timely fashion."
But from our own shopping, we know that's not always the case. So does Hank Price. The next time he replaces his tires, he said he's asking their age before committing to buy. And he suggests you do the same, stating, “This way you know upfront how old those tires are and you have a choice of saying, ‘You know. I don't want them."