As families across the country prepare to hit the highway this holiday season, a warning has been issued about the tires they are counting on to get them where they're going safely.
Some call it an invisible danger, one that could literally cause your tires to rip apart while you're driving down the highway. But a hidden code on your tires could make all the difference. That code is tucked away on the side of every tire. It's a mix of numbers and letters that could spell disaster if you don't know how to read them.
"In terms of informing consumers, it's terrible," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a group that investigates motor vehicle safety. "It doesn't work. No one would know that that's a date code."
It is a code that reveals the date the tire was manufactured. It is difficult to read, even for people who sell tires.
When I went undercover at a used tire shop, the person running the shop was aware tires had date codes, but when asked to find the date of one of the tires picked out of the stack, he couldn't. He also was unable to recognize the date code on an 11-year-old tire, even when it was pointed out to him.
At another tire shop, the salesman didn't even know tires had date codes.
"I wouldn't even know what the hell you're talking about age, how old it is," he told our undercover camera.
We asked Kane to help us crack the code on tire dates.
"We got the DOT number right here," Kane said after finding the DOT marking on a tire's side wall. "And you'll see that it's usually about 11 characters. And you'll see it's followed in this ellipse by 4 digits."
Stamped, not with the month and year, but week and year. In this case 06/05.
"This is actually the sixth week of 2005," said Kane. "This is no standard date. No one does week and year."
Tire companies say they have to date stamp this way to track tires better in a recall.
But Kane's group, which gets paid to consult with attorneys bringing accident claims against the tire industry, has lobbied the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to switch to a standard date so it's easier for people to read. Why? He says highways across the nation are littered with the answer.
Kane said he's documented more than 300 crashes in which people were hurt or killed as a result of tires older than six years. Kane said over time tires can become brittle, crack and break apart like a rubber band -- even those that haven't been used much, have plenty of tread, and look perfectly fine to the average person.
"Tire aging represents an invisible hazard," said Kane.
NHTSA has fallen asleep at the wheel by not doing more to warn drivers of the risks, according to Kane, even though NHTSA's own research found as many as 90 fatalities and more than 3,200 injuries from 2005 to 2007 linked to tire aging.
The tire industry says Kane needs to slow down.
"The data does not support expiration dates," said Dan Zielinski, senior vice president of public affairs at the Rubber Manufacturers Association, an industry group that represents eight major tire manufacturers.
Zelinski said tire maintenance is what really matters, not the age of a tire.
"A tire that's underinflated or a tire that's been worn out or bald is three times more likely to be cited as a critical event in a tire-related crash," said Zelinski.
He rejects tire aging even as five of the eight tire companies he represents acknowledge the risks, recommending customers change tires after ten years of life regardless of wear.
Most vehicle manufacturers go further. Ford, GM and Chrysler are among those urging motorists to replace tires that are six years of age.
Now, the National Transportation Safety Board is getting involved, launching an investigation into a horrific accident on a Louisiana Highway. On February 15, 2014, 30 high school baseball players and coaches were injured and four people in an SUV were killed after the tread on a 10-year-old tire from Kia Sorento separated. That caused the driver to spin out, cross the median, and slam into a school bus.
Fueling the argument, tire age could mean the difference between life and death.
"Somebody gets killed or injured as a result of a product that looks perfectly fine, and yet the government knows it's not, and the industry knows it's not," said Kane. "That's wrong."
So why hasn't NHTSA done more? It said more recent crash data shows newer tires are getting stronger and performing better. That message could change, though, when the results of that NTSB investigation are released in 2015.