You wouldn’t dream of buying second hand underpants, would you? Not even if they weren’t too shabby and looked perfectly serviceable? No? What strange priorities we have – the idea of togging up in someone else’s castoff briefs is enough to make most people shudder, even if the risk to health and safety from doing so is nil. Yet when it comes to tyres, something we entrust our lives with, thousands of Britons are perfectly happy to dress their cars with a pre-used product.
Part-worn tyres enjoy considerable sales in the UK thanks to their promise of cutting motoring costs. It is estimated that some two million of these are fitted to cars in the UK each year, the equivalent of around one vehicle in every 60 being fitted with a set of part-worns during the space of a year. Yet upon weighing up their pros and cons, some consider these tyres not such a bargain after all: part-worns not only provide, they say, poor mileage for their purchase cost – in many cases they are also illegal and offer questionable levels of safety. Furthermore, their popularity is at the expense of those selling new tyres.
“Many retailers are understandably concerned over this trade,” comments Alan Baldwin, wholesale director at Micheldever Tyre Services. “There are some reputable retailers selling these tyres, but they are still mostly selling what is technically an illegal product. As far as I am aware few part worn tyres are sold according to the regulations and very few, if any, of the part-worn tyres are being fitted with the requisite vulcanised patch.”
The vulcanised patch Baldwin refers to is required under the Motor Vehicle Tyres (Safety) Regulations 1994 SI No. 3117, which came into force on June 1, 1995. These regulations set out that the sidewalls of all partially worn tyres intended for resale must feature both the relevant approval mark and bear the words “PART-WORN” in capital letters at least four millimetres high. This mark must be permanently and legibly applied to the tyre but not by hot branding or otherwise cutting the tyre. This is a feature absent on a large majority of part-worns sold in the UK, and its omission effectively makes selling the tyre illegal.
Alan Baldwin is far from alone in his concern over the sale of part-worn tyres in the UK. Earlier in the year trading standards officers from Birmingham City Council examined ten part-worn tyres purchased from retailers across the city. An inspection of the tyres revealed than nine of the ten failed to meet the minimum legal standards for their sale. The most common problem was a lack of correct markings, yet 30 per cent of tyres had structural failings including embedded nails, illegal tread depth, exposed cords, inadequate markings – and one tyre that was 17 years old. Six of the ten tyres were then handed over to safety organisation TyreSafe, who x-rayed them to identify any further internal damage. TyreSafe found all tyres to show signs of impact damage resulting in unstable stress points or fatigue in components which would make them much more likely to suffer a blowout. These defects would remain invisible during the normal inspections part worn tyres must undergo before sale.
The council’s trading standards officers have performed their inspections for nine years now and examined a total of 190 part-worn tyres. Over this period 25 per cent of the tyres checked were found to have “some form of structural defect”. X-ray inspection would have undoubtedly revealed many more hidden weaknesses. TyreSafe chairman Stuart Jackson says the results from the latest Birmingham investigation are “extremely worrying and confirm our worst fears about part worn tyres.” He adds that “although guidelines do exist about the condition of tyres being sold as part worns, they are clearly not being adhered to by all traders.”
In addition to the need for clear markings, the regulations in force since June 1995 stipulate that any tyre sold as a part-worn must have original tread pattern grooves at least 2mm deep across the full breadth of the tread and around the entire outer circumference of the tyre and the base of any groove that showed in the original tread pattern of the tyre must be clearly visible. Furthermore, no tyre sold as a part-worn is (when inflated to the highest intended operating pressure) permitted to contain any cuts larger than 25mm or l0 per cent of the tyre’s section width whichever is greater – measured on the outside and deep enough to reach the ply or cord; any internal lump, bulge or tear caused by separation or partial separation of the structure; any of the ply or cord exposed internally or externally; or any penetration damage that has not been repaired. There is no legal requirement to x-ray tyre to check for structural damage.
“Tyres sold as part-worn do not in the main appear to be undergoing any inspections that would show up potentially serious damage,” Baldwin comments. “It’s a very concerning situation. The consumer is almost certainly not receiving great value – the remaining tread life on most part-worns is minimal and the last millimetres of tread often wear quicker than the tread when a tyre is new. In addition, part-worns have had one life already and are probably aged. Who is checking the age of these tyres? Not the manufacturer.”
Despite receiving (as the team at Antiques Roadshow may put it) a total lack of provenance when buying a part-worn tyre, research conducted by TyreSafe this year shows their sales to be on the rise in the UK. In 2010, the safety organisation reports that 11 per cent of drivers are ‘more likely’ to part worn tyres compared with a year earlier. Telephone interviews TyreSafe conducted in February showed 16 per cent of drivers surveyed had at some point purchased part worn tyres for their car, and 21 per cent of drivers between 18 and 34 said they were more likely to buy part worn tyres compared with 12 months earlier.
It is not surprising that part-worns are an attractive proposition for both younger drivers who may have less cash to pay for vehicle upkeep and those selling the tyres: “Part-worns normally retail substantially cheaper than the cheapest imported budget tyre. A new budget 205/55 R16 tyre might be purchased by a retailer for, say, £28 + vat – the most competitive retail price may then be around £38+vat. The same dimension part-worn, when shipped in as part of a container load, may cost £3 to £5. If this is then sold for £20+vat, it will generate a considerably higher margin than a new tyre. Because of this part-worn tyres can be a very popular product to sell. During the recession we have heard reports of huge increases in part-worn sales. All of these tyres are uncontrolled and untested.”
Two very important words were tucked away in the preceding paragraph: Shipped in. The sourcing of part-worn tyres is another aspect of the trade that some consider unattractive. “Many part-worn tyres are being imported from Germany,” Baldwin asks. “Why is Germany allowed to do this?” As per statistics released by the European Tyre and Rubber Manufacturers Association in July, Germany exported 69,000 tonnes of used tyres in 2009, almost four times more than the number two exporter. These exports accounted for 12.1 per cent of the total number of end of life tyres generated there last year, a considerably larger amount than were either retreaded or reused in other products.
“Effectively the German Market is dumping part of its recycling responsibility on the UK market,” says Baldwin. By this he means that through our part-worn tyre purchases the UK ends up having to process a portion of the end of life tyres Germany generates – the onus to find a means of handling these tyres is passed onto us. The Micheldever wholesale director comments that the UK part-worn tyre market is the largest in Europe; in a number of other countries the trade is illegal.
Yet the blame for our situation doesn’t lie with the Germans. The lack of control on the UK part-worn tyre market, and on tyres in general, leaves the door open for sub-standard and sometimes dangerous products to be sold onto unsuspecting customers. Even though selling part-worn tyres not in compliance with the appropriate regulations can lead to penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £5,000 or both, Baldwin says “I’m not aware of a single prosecution against somebody selling illegal part-worn tyres in the UK.” NTDA director Richard Edy agrees: “Part worn tyres continue to claim a significant section of the replacement tyre market and this is a cause for concern as the strict legislation surrounding the sale of these tyres is not being complied with and the authorities are not enforcing the law.”
“It is symptomatic of the UK having Europe’s worst policed tyre laws,” Baldwin adds. “Tread depths on tyres removed from cars in this country are lower than in any other European country, and as recorded by ourselves and many others , the percentage of dangerously illegal tyres coming off UK vehicles has never been as high as it is today There are in reality very few UK tyre checks outside of the MoT. The policing of UK tyre laws is in fact virtually non existent outside of the MOT test , which even more terrifying with the nonsensical rubbish being talked in some government circles about Bi-Annual MOT’s .”
Some may argue that banning the sale of part-worns altogether disadvantages those motoring on a shoestring. Yet many believe that if a tyre is demounted and sold by a third party, it should be x-rayed and thoroughly checked, as retreads and remoulded truck tyres are. Introducing this requirement may seem like an obvious means of drastically reducing the number of illegal part-worns sold in the UK. But even should the government decide to add such a requirement to its legislation, two questions would still remain – could the tyres still be sold for a competitive price, and if some part-worn retailers were tempted not to perform this costly procedure, would their activities be adequately policed?