When Tires Fail
When tire treads separate and cause a vehicle to veer out of control and crash, tire manufacturers blame the victim, the vehicle, or the roadway.
Tire failures, separations and blowouts, are foreseeable events that occur on a daily basis. We know - and auto and tire makers also know - that at some point after the tread on a tire is worn down, a tire will fail to do its job, which is to remain inflated and intact. However, what most of us do not know - although auto and tire makers do know this - is that a tire also will often fail to do its job due to a manufacturing or design defect long before the tread on the tire has worn out.
Almost all tires made today are steel belted radial tires. Their most common form of failure is tread separation. Some tire designs are more prone to tread separation than others.
What is also known but not acknowledged by auto and tire manufacturers is that those tread separations are implicated in rollover crashes. Although drivers clearly can play a role in every traffic accident, evidence is mounting that tread separations can and do cause vehicles to respond in an uncharacteristic and uncontrollable fashion when a tire failure occurs at highway speeds.
When manufacturers are sued over crashes preceded by tire failure, they often seek to settle out of court and place a requirement of confidentiality on the terms of the settlement. Two recent cases that did get into the public record reveal that these settlements may well be involving millions of dollars:
- In a Houston, Texas case involving a fatal rollover crash of a Ford Bronco II, General Tire reached a confidential settlement with the victim's family before trial, but Ford fought it out in court and lost. The family was awarded $25 million. [Cammack v. Ford and General Tire]
- In a Sardis, Mississippi lawsuit involving another Bronco II fatal rollover, Ford reached a secret settlement out of court. Cooper Tire went to trial and lost. That award: $3.5 million. [Tuckier v. Ford and Cooper Tire]
Various vehicle manufacturers and Firestone are known to have settled dozens of law suits involving tread separation on Firestone ATX tires.
Failing the Failure Test
The tire industry has long argued that tire failure by itself does not cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle, and thus, even if the tire is shown to have failed because it was defective, it did not "cause" the crash. However, testing performed for consumers using a Bronco II has documented that a tire disablement at highway speeds does cause the vehicle to change directions thus necessitating emergency steering response by the driver. The steering response can, under many circumstances, cause the vehicle to respond in an unanticipated manner and result in a loss of directional control.
Finger-Pointing and Hand-Washing
When tire treads separate and cause a vehicle to veer out of control and crash, tire manufacturers blame the victim, or the vehicle, or the roadway, arguing that the crash was caused not by a tire defect but by one or more of several external factors it cannot control:
- Roadway hazard (pothole, debris, etc.)
When a roadway hazard damages a tire, it leaves behind clear evidence, but if the tire failure leads to a crash, it is likely such a hazard acted in concert with a manufacturing or design defect. Even if a road hazard is the sole cause of a tire's failure, it may well be that a safer design could have helped the driver control the vehicle and avoid the crash.
- Poor tire maintenance (driving with tires that are over-inflated, under-inflated or overloaded)
When bias-ply tires were the norm, under-inflated tires driven for a long time would show heavier wear on their edges, and those driven over-inflated would have heavier wear on their crowns. With the advent of radial ply tires, the under-inflation or over-inflation would have to be quite substantial and long-lasting for such conditions to exist.
- Poor driving skills (the driver could have avoided the collision)
Detached-tread tests of the Bronco II were done on track cleared of all traffic and other hazards, and by a professional driver who knew that the tire failure was going to happen; they did not reflect emergency, in-traffic situations, and yet they clearly showed that the SUV veered out of control when a tire failed. Further, letters on file with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from tire manufacturers themselves repeatedly warn that a failed tire will lead to a collision that can cause catastrophic injury, proving they themselves do not believe their own arguments. It should also be noted that, in all 50 states, if a driver of ordinary skill cannot control the car when a tire fails, the law holds the driver blameless for the collision.
The Real Culprits
Tread belt separations are usually the result of poor bonding during the manufacturing process. This can be caused by any of a number of factors:
- Bonding problems can result from using a bad formula that does not bond well, even if the tire is built as specified.
- Contaminants in the tire, including un-dispersed ingredients; products that are not supposed to be used, such as polypropylene to separate the rubber; water; and ingredients that have no business in a tire-making room (e.g., candy wrappers and tobacco juice)
- Lack of "tackiness" because the ingredients were old
- Air trapped between layers of the tire
- Improperly sized strips used in building the tire
Manufacturers go to great lengths to prevent public disclosure of what they consider "trade secrets," even when lives are in the balance.