One of the most significant safety issues that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media is the relationship between tire failure accidents and summer driving.
We see the same thing every summer. Families drive long distances in the south on highways. For hours. The roads are hot. And suddenly, with no warning, the family vehicle’s tire experiences a catastrophic tread separation leading to a major crash.
You can see evidence of these tire failures on almost every highway in the south – strips of tire treads laying on the side of the road. These pieces of tread are so prolific that the Florida Highway Patrol has given them a name here in Florida – “alligators.”
While some tire failures also happen in colder months or in northern states, there is a disproportionately larger number of failures during the summer months, and especially in southern states. Why?
Most modern tires fail not because of a “blow out” as most folks think, but rather because of a “tread belt separation” which is a failure in which the two belts rip apart from each other, causing the tread to become detached from the tire. Almost all tires today are steel belted radials. The manufactured by wrapping two steel belts around a tire, and then wrapping the tread around the tire on top of the steel belts. The entire tire is then cooked in a tire machine so the different rubber components can “vulcanize” – a chemical process that is akin to melting the tire so it sticks together.
Problem is heat kills steel belted radial tires. Rubber, the main component in a tire, is made of long polymer chains of molecules. These long chains give rubber its elasticity. Oxygen molecules can break down these chains and cause the tire to become brittle. When you add heat to the mix – especially over a long period of time – it accelerates the breakdown of the polymer chains and the bonds between the various components of the tire. This breakdown eventually causes cracks between the steel belts and ultimately a tread separation.
Here’s the scenario: family drives south to Florida on their way to Walt Disney in August. They drive for hours at 70 miles per hour. It’s a sunny day and the interstate highway is hot. After several hours of driving the tire suddenly fails and the tread tears violently apart from the rest of the tire. As it rips away the tread slaps loudly against the inside of the car’s wheel well so hard it sounds like a shotgun to everyone inside the car. The sudden failure changes the way the vehicle handles and often causes the car to veer dramatically out of control without any driver input, often causing the vehicle to leave the road and roll over. Or worse, veer into oncoming traffic. All in a matter of seconds at highway speeds.
We have seen the relationship between southern states and tread separations through both our law practice and through hard data we’ve analyzed. Several years ago we received several hundred warranty claims forms from one of the major tire manufacturers of property damage claims the company had paid as the result of tire failures. We went through these claims forms and identified the geographic location of each tire failure. We then put a red dot on a map of the United States for each accident.
The map tells the story. There were a hugely disproportionate number of tread separations in the southern states. No surprise.
Unfortunately there are preventive measures that can be incorporated into tires to virtually eliminate tread separations. These measures include building tires with strips of nylon over the edges of the steel belts, or using better anti-oxidant chemicals for certain tire components. However, these measures cost money and are only used by some manufacturers in certain model tires.
Meanwhile it’s another hot August in Florida. The alligators are starting to stack up on our highways. And tragically, so are the tread separations and crashes.