How old are your tires?
The answer to that question could save your life.
Tire age may have played a factor in a crash Saturday on Interstate 95 in Jupiter that left six people dead, including four children from a Stuart family.
Florida Highway Patrol investigators said that tread separation — a highly dangerous situation in which the tread comes apart from the body of the tire — caused the driver of a 2011 Mercury Villager to lose control and smash into a concrete wall on the southbound lanes of the interstate before veering back onto the highway and being struck by another vehicle.
The driver, Heidi Solis-Perez, and her 11-year-old daughter survived, but four of her children were killed as well as her 31-year-old boyfriend and his 18-year-old cousin.
Auto safety experts say that tread separation is most often the result of old tires. Car manufacturers recommend that vehicle owners discard tires older than six years.
But many consumers are unaware of that recommendation and judge the integrity of their tires based solely on the amount of tread depth that’s showing. Safety advocates warn that tires degrade over time even if the vehicle they’re attached to has been sitting inside a garage for years and have accumulated few miles.
“We’ll show people that their tire is ready to separate and they still don’t think it’s dangerous because they’re looking at the tread,” said Andrew Sarantidis, owner of New Age Automotive in West Palm Beach. “They don’t want to accept what we’re telling them.”
That can lead to disaster.
Statistics are hard to come by, but a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of data from 2005-2007 revealed that an average of 90 people are killed and 3,200 are injured nationally in crashes where the cause is likely tire aging.
Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., said the fault does not fall on vehicle owners, but with tire manufacturers, who make it difficult for consumers to easily determine when a tire was made.
Tires have a “born-on” date molded into the sidewalls, but you might have to be equal parts code-breaker and NASCAR fan to figure it out.
The date can be found at the end of a long serial number that begins with the letters “DOT.” The final four numbers correspond to the two-digit week the tire was manufactured followed by the two-digit year. For instance, a tire that ends with 3015 means a tire was made in the 30th week of 2015.
Increasing the level of difficult, Kane said, is that born-on dates or sometimes molded into the inside portion of the tire. That requires a person to go underneath the car with a flashlight to find it.
“It’s very confusing and consumers are not making appropriate decisions because of it,” said Kane, who has been fighting the tire industry since 2003 to use “non-coded ways” to alert the public to a tire’s age.
The combination of age and South Florida’s hot and dry climate is a volatile mix, experts say, because it can mean a shorter life span for tires. If the tires haven’t been maintained properly, the results can be catastrophic.
“You have a fraction of a second to react,” Kane said. “When aged tires fail, they fail very, very rapidly. This idea that you’re going to hear the tread giving way and be able to pull over to the side of the road? Not very likely.”
Kane said the dangers are particularly acute when the tread on a rear tire separates because it causes a vehicle to over-steer, a condition in which the vehicle begins to spin and the driver loses control.
The 2001 Mercury Villager that Solis-Perez, 33, was driving Saturday night crashed after a rear tire came apart, according to FHP.
Peter Sarantidis, the service manager at New Age Auto, said he would like to see a statewide program mandating annual inspections for vehicles.
“That will save lives,” Sarantidis said. “You see some cars driving down the streets with tires (wobbling) and ready to fall off. They’re going to cause an accident and kill somebody.”