An age old message?
It hasn’t been a good month for global transport’s PR. A runaway train in Canada, followed by a train crash in Spain, a bus crash in Italy and the recent head-on railway collision in Switzerland tragically broke decades long fatality records in each area. Of course mass transport in the developed world has never been safer and incidents like this are thankfully rare. And despite the innate Gestaltist tendency to draw a correlation between the random international happenings, there isn’t one. But that doesn’t stop us being all the more aware of such incidents. Just like when you buy a new car and suddenly realize how many of that make, model and colour suddenly appear despite having been on the roads all along. With this in mind, one of the three incidents that has recently caught public attention stood out particularly clearly for this tyre journalist – the Italian bus crash. Before the investigation was even carried out, my mind was drawn back to another coach crash in the UK. While it is just speculation to suggest that aging was a factor in both cases and there is in fact no clear link between them, one couldn’t help but wonder if it was another case of apparent age-related tyre failure.
The question of tyre aging returned to the fore in mid-July. Between 16 and 17 July a coroner’s inquest in Woking examining a fatal coach crash last September heard that the vehicle lost control and left the road following the failure of its front nearside tyre – a tyre manufactured more than 19 years earlier. Expert witnesses testified that several of the six tyres fitted to the coach were old and the DOT code showed the failed tyre was “abnormally old” and had potentially been delaminating for months. The problem was that such deterioration could not have been picked up by visual inspection. The tyre was only partially worn, so had either been used as a spare or in storage for a number of years. It hadn’t retreaded or regrooved.
Coroner Richard Travers was obviously frustrated that there is no legal mechanism in place to monitor aging: “The real explanation that this tyre failed so catastrophically is through age,” he said, invoking Rule 43 (of the Coroners Rules 1984) that requires him to draw attention to the Minister for Transport of the dangers caused by “the fact that vehicles, be they private, commercial or public are legally able to drive on tyres without restriction on age and by reason of age are potentially in a perilous condition which there is no realistic means of detecting.”
In response the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport has requested a meeting with her non-shadow counterpart to talk tyres. Garston and Halewood MP Maria Eagle, whose electorate was home to 18-year old Michael Molloy, one of three killed in last September’s crash, wanted to discuss the need for tyre age to be considered in law. “Currently the law is framed in terms of the condition of the tyre, not the age,” the Liverpool Echo reported Eagle as saying. “I think this is something that needs to be looked at and I hope to be able to discuss this with the Department for Transport….we need to do all we can to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.”
Round in circles?
And so we come back to legislation once again. One obvious way to address this is to make an age check part of the MOT. After all it would only require technicians to read and interpret the DOT code. What could be wrong with that? But things are never straightforward. In the case of the Woking Coroner’s court case, the tyre was actually two years older than the vehicle, something that is quite often the case within fleets that stock spares and even some OE tyre circumstances. So say, for example, you bought a bargain basement new car just before the plates change. This means the car is already a year old when you drive it out of the show room. If the OE tyres are two years older, this means they are three years old before you park it outside your house. By the time you have your first MOT your tyres could be 6 years old, which is the rough consensus of when it is time to change tyres on the basis of age alone. Would the public accept this?
It is not the first time tyre aging has been discussed at the highest levels – think of the NTDA MOT campaign back in 2008 and another coroner’s case, which led to a rule 43 letter in 2010. At TyreSafe’s annual industry briefing on 18 July (see page 16), the feeling seemed to be that the subject was being discussed by all parties. But no sooner did I return to the office than I took a call from an apoplectic motorhome owner who had just passed his MOT before going on holiday – only to have two blowouts from 10-year-old tyres in the next 400 miles. Thankfully no-one was hurt. But he still had to spend the best part of a week of his holidays parked on the side of the road while he waited for his tyres to be delivered. The point is that unless something changes, the status quo will remain as static as his motorhome and the kinds of cases we see here will inevitably continue.